On the Front Lines of Mental Health

Counseling Specialist undergoes PACT Certification to help assess suicide risks

Suicide is on the rise, especially among people of college age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in four adults ages 18-24 contemplated suicide in June 2020. Additionally, The National College Health Assessment completed in 2021 revealed that nearly 75% of students surveyed nationwide experienced psychological distress.

“Certainly, the pandemic heavily impacted mental health, especially for young adults,” says Valerie Rutherford MSW, LISW-S, Counseling Specialist at Kent State University’s Geauga Campus.

“The number of students being seen by myself and other counseling specialists across the Kent State system is increasing, as are the rates of anxiety and depression amongst the students. This seems to be a common trend across college campuses nationwide.”

As a result, Rutherford was motivated to receive Psychological Autopsy Certification Training (PACT) over the summer. Concurrently, the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation received a grant to implement training in Ohio, one of only two states attempting to train mental health providers across an entire state. 

Valerie Rutherford

“Given the increasing rates of mental health concerns amongst college students, I found this training to be useful in better understanding the factors that contribute to suicide risk. With that knowledge, I am better prepared to assess suicide risk when meeting with students in the counseling setting,” Rutherford explains.

This PACT certification adds to Rutherford’s expertise as an independently licensed master’s-level social worker with experience treating mental health and substance use disorders. She joined Kent State Geauga in 2018 as its first mental health clinician for students, providing counseling services as well as campus initiatives on mental health and wellness.

After earning her Bachelor's Degree in Psychology in 1999, she began working in the mental health field as a case manager specializing in adults with severe mental illness and substance use disorders. After earning a Master of Social Work (MSW) in 2004, she provided individual and group counseling in community settings including outpatient behavioral health, foster care, adult corrections, and residential treatment. For four years prior to joining Kent State Geauga, she supervised case managers and provided crisis mental health services at a community behavioral health agency.


The Psychological Autopsy Certification Training (PACT) equips Rutherford to investigate a suicide after it has occurred in order to better understand its root causes. It helps address the “why?” question raised by survivors regarding the suicide of their loved ones. This training ascertains risk factors for suicide and helps to determine causation.

Rutherford explains, “A psychological autopsy involves a deep dive into the life the deceased lived prior to their death through many different means such as conducting structured interviews with friends and family of the deceased, reviewing available medical records, and/or reviewing available school or employment records. During the psychological autopsy, the investigator assesses vulnerability factors, both environmental and specific to that person, as well as systemic issues, that if addressed may have reduced the overall risk for suicide.”

Rutherford continues, “One thing that makes suicide difficult to make sense of is that there is not one specific determinant that leads a person to take their own life. Although depression is one common contributing factor, there are often multiple factors that contribute to the decision one makes to complete suicide. It is important to note that knowledge of how the risk factors impact an individual could have the potential to lead to change that mitigates risk for others.”


Rutherford adds that, while attending college is a rewarding and worthwhile experience, it can also be a time of increased responsibility and pressure. She emphasizes the importance of practicing self-care and stress management in order to be healthy. When overwhelmed by academic demands, students can lose sight of how important basic self-care is (getting enough sleep, eating nutritious meals, engaging in healthy social activities, maintaining family relationships, attending to physical health, and remaining active).

Another step toward improving mental health is to reach out and access resources for support. “Mental health issues are more common among students on campus than most students probably realize,” Rutherford says.

Help is available for those experiencing depression, anxiety, or extreme stress. Counseling Specialists are in place at both the Kent State Geauga Campus and the Twinsburg Academic Center, including Valerie Rutherford and Sue Mark-Sracic. They offer individual therapy sessions, educational workshops, and training programs for students and the campus community. The 24-hour hotline is 440-834-3766.

Many community mental health resources can also be useful, especially since students commute from several surrounding counties. If students need assistance in locating mental health resources in their community, they can dial 211 or visit the website https://www.211oh.org/. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline can also connect anyone to a trained crisis worker who can provide free and confidential emotional support or resources.

POSTED: Wednesday, October 19, 2022 11:58 AM
UPDATED: Thursday, December 08, 2022 01:46 PM
Estelle R. Brown