Mason Gatekeepers Support Peers Struggling With Distress, Depression

Mason Gatekeepers Support Peers Struggling With Distress, Depression

By Penny Gilchrist and Lela Ross

A two-hour training seminar offered this fall could mean the difference between life or death for someone.

George Mason University’s University’s Gatekeeper program hopes to prevent suicide by offering a class that will train college students, faculty and staff on how to talk to someone who may be thinking of taking his or her own life. Data shows that more than 1,100 college students commit suicide each year.

The next training session, scheduled for Nov 17 at the Fairfax campus, could be especially beneficial for students, because young adults are often more comfortable getting help from a peer. Sponsored by Mason CARES, a suicide prevention and awareness program offered by Mason’s Counseling and Psychological Services, the Gatekeeper program teaches participants to recognize the warning signs of suicide. These include:

  • Hopelessness
  • Emotional withdrawal
  • Sudden disinterest in school
  • Reckless behavior
  • Comments about not wanting to live

Students view "Send Silence Packing," a nationally recognized traveling exhibition of 1,100 donated backpacks which represent the number of college students nationwide lost to suicide each year, on the North Plaza of the Fairfax Campus. Photo by Alexis Glenn

The presence of one or more of these signs does not necessarily indicate a person is considering suicide, but experts say it is important to be attentive to these and other concerning behaviors.

Gatekeepers, as those who’ve completed the training are known, learn effective strategies for discussing the sensitive topic with someone who may be in emotional crisis.

“Research shows that opening the conversation about suicide is a preventative measure in itself because then you can take action,” says Robyn Mehlenbeck, director of Mason’s Center for Psychological Services.  The center provides psychological assessment and treatment services to the Northern Virginia community. “Many people believe that bringing up the topic of suicide plants the idea, but that is not true. Communication needs to remain open and young people should not be afraid to ask for help,” she says.

A trained Gatekeeper can offer life-saving, immediate assistance to a suicidal person by connecting him or her to Mason’sCounseling and Psychological Services website, which includes links to resources such as Online Crisis Chat, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.  The site also offers information about the center’s free student counseling services.

Sponsored by a grant from Mason’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, Mason clinical psychology PhD candidate Bethany Rallis is conducting a study to evaluate what attributes make Gatekeepers most successful.

Rallis’ findings will help the program’s coordinators better equip Gatekeepers to intervene in potentially life-threatening situations.  “Peer support is critical in helping students manage challenges related to college adjustment, identity, self-esteem, and relationships toward cultivating overall well-being and academic success,” Rallis says. “Our efforts can provide many students with the tools to be supportive to peers in crisis.”

For more information about Gatekeeper training, visit the Gatekeeper website.

For more information about Mason’s Counseling and Psychological Services’ Mason CARES program, contact Leslie Geer, LCWS, University Life’s assistant director of Wellness and Prevention.

Write to Melanie Balog at