Born Out Of Tragedy, EMU Program Provides Mentors To Ease Transition To College Life
By Kate Elizabeth Queram, Daily News-Record
When he sat down to write his son Austin’s obituary last fall, Bibb Frazier was faced with a choice.
He could be purposely vague about how the 22-year-old died, or he could say, straightforwardly, that it was suicide, caused by his son’s battle with bipolar disorder.
“And I chose, in this case, to do something to make people think about a very real problem,” said Frazier, of Harrisonburg. “This is a situation where it’s best just to be honest and try to save some lives in the future.”
Austin Frazier Memorial Fund
To accomplish that goal, Frazier established the Austin Frazier Memorial Fund, where people could send monetary gifts in lieu of flowers. Immediately, he said, they began to pour in.
“There were well over 100 gifts made, and they’re still coming in,” he said. “And about a quarter of them are from strangers.”
This fall, that donated money – with additional funds from Frazier himself – will help launch a program at Eastern Mennonite University designed to make the transition to college life easier for students suffering from mood disorders, such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder.
‘CoachLink’ connects the dots
<!––> Participation in the program is voluntary, and the request for assistance can come from the undergraduates themselves, their parents or faculty members, according to Pam Comer, director of counseling services at EMU.
The graduate students – who will receive credit for their participation – will serve as mentors, campus liaisons and friends, Comer said.
‘A listening ear’
“Coaches will determine case by case what each individual undergraduate needs,” she said. “They’ll connect them on campus, be a go-to, be a listening ear.”
Frazier said he chose EMU after the Mennonite community reached out to his family following Austin’s death. The campus’ size, he added, is ideally suited to the program.
“Being such a small school, I think it’s a particularly good nurturing environment for it to be tested and tweaked and monitored,” he said.
Program begins with four coaches
Currently, the program has four coaches, with the potential to expand depending on the demand from undergraduates.
Comer said she knows of at least two incoming students who have expressed interest in using CoachLink, but that the need for the program is much more widespread.
“Twenty-five percent of any college campus usually has some kind of pre-existing issue with depression or anxiety,” she said.
“About half of them could really be helped by a personalized layer of attention.”
Importance of ‘reaching out for help’
The hope, according to Frazier, is to encourage students to reach out for help in time to prevent them from feeling disconnected, withdrawing from school or ultimately succumbing to their disorders.
Frazier said he felt that if Austin – a junior at James Madison University when he died – had access to a program like CoachLink, his outcome could have been different.
“It’s an unmet public health need, transitioning these kids … into the freshman dorms, because once they leave their home, it’s sink or swim, baby,” he said.
“You’re on your own. You have to ask for any help, and sometimes for these students, that’s the hard thing.”
Future plans for CoachLink
The program is funded for three school years, according to Frazier, and the results will be tracked to determine if it can be expanded to other campuses. But even if it stays, successfully, at EMU, he’ll be happy.
“My first and number one hope is that it saves lives,” he said. “If we can just save a couple families from having to go through what we did, that’s enough.”
For more information on CoachLink, contact Pam Comer at 540-432-4314 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you or someone you know has concerns about suicide, she advises calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255).