Like many students who visit the UCI Health Education Center, the young woman who walked in a couple years ago was troubled by something she couldn’t explain: Her hair was falling out. Was she having a reaction to her shampoo, she asked? Once she was behind closed doors, the center staff discovered the real cause of her hair loss: She was suffering from a serious eating disorder. They told her how to get help and connected her with the appropriate services.
“People can wander in here without an appointment,” says Ellen Reibling, Ph.D. ’04, center director. “Every question is just as important as the next.”
As founding director since 1990, Reibling’s vision was to promote healthy lifestyle choices and educate students about diseases and other potential health problems. An important aspect of these efforts is UCI’s innovative suicide prevention Web site, Don’t Erase Your Future (www.donteraseyourfuture.org).
The site presents five historical icons – Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, William Shakespeare and Marie Curie – and describes how, if they had committed suicide after encountering difficulties in their lives, all their contributions would have been lost.
“At 18 William Shakespeare got his unwed girlfriend pregnant,” the site proclaims. “What if he had committed suicide instead of writing his masterpieces?” It includes warning signs of suicide and provides links to campus resources and suicide prevention hotlines.
“At least two UCI students used the suicide prevention hotline and got treatment as a result of the campaign,” Reibling says. “Every life is precious, and this showed the system was working.”
Launched in 2006, Don’t Erase Your Future is partly funded by an annual federal grant of $75,000 and was developed in partnership with Better World Advertising. The American Public Health Association will honor the site with the “Best Electronic Materials” award at their annual convention in Washington, D.C., in November.
Reibling became a proponent of using electronic media to change student behavior while pursuing a doctorate in environmental health, science and policy at UCI. While working part-time at the center, she wrote a dissertation on the use of anti-tobacco ads to reduce smoking among youth. The insights she gained in graduate school contributed to the success of the suicide prevention site.
Reibling plans to expand use of Don’t Erase Your Future beyond UCI and has received inquiries from other universities interested in adopting it.
“Helping others is part of my personality; it just floats my boat,” Reibling says. “It’s hard to see students in distress when there’s help out there. This Web site is a sign post, a bridge to services.”