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WIU Research Team Awarded NCAA Grant Funding to Conduct Student-Athlete Suicide Prevention Training on Campus

April 27, 2023

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MACOMB, IL – A group of Western Illinois University administrators, faculty and staff is one of four applicants nationwide to receive part of $100,000 in grant money to fund a project aimed at campus training in suicide prevention and awareness for student-athletes.

The WIU grant team is made up of Department of Kinesiology Professor Jennifer Plos (Project Director); Interim Counseling Center Director Cara Cerullo; Head Athletic Trainer Chad Cerullo; Assistant Athletic Director for Academics and Student Athlete Development Beth Wilson; Academic Advisor Hannah Hendrickson; and Sponsored Projects Pre-Award Specialist Kari Woodrum.

The WIU team paired with Deputy Director of the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Depression Center Matt Mishkind, from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus to collaborate on the project.

Authored by WIU Athletic Training alumna Kelly Crowley, as well as Plos, Cara Cerullo and WIU Interim Associate Dean of the College of Education and Human Services Renee Polubinsky, a 2018 academic article titled, "Implementing suicide prevention training into an athletic training curriculum: An introductory model," published in the National Athletic Trainers' Association's (NATA) Athletic Training Education Journal led Mishkind to connect with the WIU team.

Mishkind initially reached out to the WIU team to discuss suicide prevention gatekeeper training in athletics and to invite WIU's Athletics staff to be part of a pilot study using a program his team had developed called VitalCog: Suicide Prevention for Athletic Staff.

WIU Athletic Director Paul Bubb said he was contacted by a representative of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in July about implementing the program on WIU's campus.

At that time, 18 members of WIU's Athletics staff volunteered to go through the VitalCog for Athletic Staff training to learn skills on how to identify students and respond to student-athletes who may have mental health concerns.

Continued collaboration between the two groups led to the application submission for the NCAA Innovations in Research and Practice Grant Program.

"WIU was already providing suicide prevention and awareness training to athletic training students," said Cara Cerullo. "The Johnson Depression Center/University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus academic connection is a collaboration to implement the 'VitalCog: Suicide Prevention Navigator Program' for student-athletes on the WIU campus with the help of the grant money."

The $17,500 in awarded grant money will pay for pilot training sessions, development of ongoing training sessions, a virtual trainer portal to provide peer and other support, program evaluation and development of best practices.

"WIU is looking forward to collaborating with Matt and his team on this project," said Plos. "We sincerely appreciate the NCAA's interest in and support for the project. We feel strongly about the need for and purpose of this program. We believe it is long overdue in athletics and will have a positive impact on our student-athletes."

The hope is that once the training is complete on the WIU campus that it can be shared with other campuses.

All of the NCAA Innovations in Research and Practice Grant Program grant awards are for work in a wide range of areas involving student-athletes. This is the ninth year the program has awarded grant funding.

Each funded project is considered a pilot program that will lead to programming other schools can adopt for use on their campuses or adapt to fit their own needs. WIU and the three other awarded schools were chosen from 80 proposals, which was then narrowed to 15 finalists of which 4 projects were selected as grant awardees.

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