A Brief Peer Gatekeeper Suicide Prevention Training: Preliminary Examination of Efficacy and Individual Factors That Influence Outcomes

Bethany Rallis

Advisor: Christianne Esposito-Smythers, PhD, Department of Psychology

Committee Members: Robyn Mehlenbeck, Seth Kaplan

Democracy Lane (10340 Democracy Lane, Fairfax, VA), #203B
May 24, 2016, 11:00 AM to 08:00 AM


Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. Despite the availability of mental health resources on college campuses, less than half of college students who are contemplating suicide seek professional help. Suicidal students are more likely to reach out to their peers for help but peers are generally not equipped with the skills needed to provide appropriate assistance. Thus, training students to serve as peer gatekeepers (i.e., recognize suicide warning signs, appropriately respond to concerns, refer suicidal youth to appropriate care) in suicide prevention efforts on college campuses holds great promise. The purpose of this dissertation project, funded by the GMU Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, was to: test the preliminary efficacy of a brief peer suicide gatekeeper training program (Mason Cares) through a joint collaboration between the Psychology Department and Counseling and Psychological Services (Aim 1); and examine characteristics that predict effective peer gatekeeping behavior (Aim 2).

To address the first study aim, we examined whether a 1-hour version of the Mason Cares suicide gatekeeper training program, offered to the general college student population, was associated with increases in suicide prevention knowledge (declarative and perceived) and referral of suicidal peers for help. Two hundred thirty-one college students (ages 18–48, Mage=20.7, SD= 0.7; 65.4% female, 34.6% male; 56.7% Caucasian, 21.6% Asian, 11.7% Black/African American, 10% other/mixed race; 14.7% Hispanic, 85.3% non-hispanic) completed the Mason Cares suicide gatekeeper training. Results of paired sample t-tests revealed that the 1-hour peer gatekeeper training was associated with significant increases in student declarative and perceived knowledge of suicide prevention strategies as well as self-reported referrals of suicidal students over the course of three months. Socio-demographic variables did not influence outcomes, suggesting that the training program was equally effective for students of different ages, sex, and race.

To address the second aim, we examined whether a prominent model of leader attributes and performance (Zaccaro, Kemp, & Bader, 2004) could be used to predict effective peer gatekeeping behavior. According to this model, cognitive abilities, prosocial personality characteristics, and leadership driven motives for performance, increase the likelihood of developing leadership traits (i.e., social appraisal skills, problem-solving skills, expertise), which in turn, contribute to effective leadership behavior. Based on this model, we hypothesized that strong cognitive ability (i.e., higher GPA), positive/prosocial personality traits (i.e., extraversion, conscientiousness), and intrinsic motivation to help/support others, would be associated with stronger peer gatekeeper leadership traits (i.e., emotional intelligence, social-problem skills, knowledge acquisition), which in turn, would predict effective peer gatekeeping behavior (i.e., identification/referral of suicidal students for professional help). The study sample was the same as that specified under Aim 1. The model was tested using structural equation modeling. Study results failed to offer support for the hypothesized model. These results suggest that the Zaccaro et al. (2004) model of leader attributes and performance, as operationalized in the present study, does not predict effective peer gatekeeping behavior in the area of suicide prevention.  

Overall, results suggest that the Mason Cares 1-hour peer suicide gatekeeper training does lead to increases in student knowledge of suicide prevention strategies as well as referral of suicidal students. However, further research is needed to identify characteristics that predict effective peer gatekeeping behavior. Such knowledge may help inform selection of students for training when resources are limited.