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Loving Parents Support Suicide Prevention Program to Save Lives on the Forty Acres

Taking Action

By Kristin Tommey

Do you feel depressed? Are you considering suicide? Will you walk with me to the counseling center?

These are not easy questions to ask. But they have the power to save lives.

While adults often remember college as the best years of their lives, it is an extraordinarily sensitive time of personal growth and change. Students face many challenges — difficult course loads, relationship troubles, unstable friendships, and drug and alcohol abuse. For many, it is the first time living on their own, away from the support of family and longtime friends. And at The University of Texas at Austin — a campus with more than 50,000 students — it can be easy to feel lost in the crowd.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people aged 15-24.

UT Austin alumni Nancy and Larry Harlan experienced the heartbreaking reality of this statistic when they lost their son Brian to suicide in 2006. At the time of his death, he was a 20-year-old student at the university.

Brian came from a family of Longhorns. His parents both earned degrees from the McCombs School of Business — Larry, a bachelor’s degree in petroleum land management in 1978 and Nancy, a bachelor’s degree in accounting in 1979. He had siblings that graduated from UT Austin, as well as multiple extended family members. He grew up rooting for Longhorn sports teams, and there was never any doubt that he would one day attend UT.

After Brian’s death, the Harlans wanted to take action — to help prevent other students and families from experiencing the same pain. For more than 10 years, they have worked with the UT Counseling and Mental Health Center (CMHC) in the Division of Student Affairs to strengthen Be That One, the university’s suicide prevention program. Through robust trainings, workshops, and awareness campaigns, the program empowers members of the campus community to ask the difficult questions and get help when they see a student or friend in distress.

“The Harlans’ support is helping us reach students at a most critical time,” says Soncia Reagins-Lilly, vice president for student affairs and dean of students. “The Division of Student Affairs offers vital resources and services to students at every step of their Longhorn journey, including the invaluable suicide prevention programming enhanced by the Harlans’ dedication.”

In 2010, the Harlans established the Brian L. Harlan Memorial Endowment to create a permanent source of funding for Be That One. It is the first and only endowment that supports suicide prevention and mental health care at UT Austin.

“We didn’t want Brian’s death to be in vain,” Nancy says. “Anyone who knew Brian knows that he was a very thoughtful and generous young man. We thought carefully about what he would have wanted, and we believe that he would be proud to have his name associated with a program that is helping others.”

Brian Harlan

Brian Harlan

To date, more than 130 people have contributed to the endowment, and the Harlans hope to grow the fund until its annual distributions cover all of Be That One’s operating costs.

“We feel a deep sense of gratitude to the many people — friends, family, people we reached out to, and others who donated on their own — who have shared their treasure and supported the endowment,” Larry says. “Together, we are ensuring that UT Austin will always have a strong suicide prevention program in place.”

Over the past eight years, Be That One has transformed suicide prevention efforts on the Forty Acres. Marian Trattner, the program’s coordinator, has worked with 10 graduate students in the fields of counseling, psychology, and social work to deliver suicide prevention trainings and workshops to student organizations, staff groups, and faculty meetings. The team also manages a variety of campus outreach campaigns, including the annual Suicide Prevention Week, that encourage students to talk about mental health and ask for help.

With a 24-hour crisis line and walk-in appointments for students in crisis during business hours, CMHC provides counseling services day and night. Since 2009, the center has seen a 53 percent increase in the number of students who have sought counseling and an 81 percent increase in the number of counseling sessions provided.

“Change takes time. It’s tough to get students to walk into a counseling center,” Nancy says. “They don’t want to be the one admitting that they’re struggling. But asking for help is a life skill that we’re teaching these kids. I think the more we talk about it and the more services we offer, the more students will buy into it.”

Student leaders and organizations across the university have rallied behind Be That One. For example, the Tejas Club, a men’s spirit group founded in 1925, adopted the Brian L. Harlan Memorial Endowment as its philanthropy focus after losing Robert “Bobby” McCurdy, a member and 2009 UT Austin graduate, to suicide in 2010. Last year, the club’s annual Robert McCurdy Memorial Golf Tournament raised $5,000 in support of the fund.

Gavin Martin, a Plan II Honors and aerospace engineering sophomore, leads the club’s philanthropic and awareness efforts in his role as suicide prevention manager. During his tenure, he has introduced informal, biweekly group discussions about mental health for Tejas members. He believes that the most important thing students can do to prevent suicide is to talk to one another.

“When it comes to other diseases, research dollars help scientists discover cures and lifesaving treatments,” Martin says. “But when it comes to preventing suicide, the best way to make a difference is to change the campus culture by having honest conversations about mental health. And that’s what we’re trying to do in the Tejas Club.”

Nancy and Larry hope that Brian’s memory and their support of Be That One will inspire many more conversations between students, like those happening in Tejas, as well as conversations between students and their parents.

“There is such a focus on how hard it is to get into UT Austin, but people forget how difficult it is to stay and succeed at a university of this size and caliber,” Larry says. “As parents, it’s important that we talk to our kids about how to get through the difficult times — and that we remind them that there are people and resources in place to help them get through it.”

If you’re interested in learning more about the Brian L. Harlan Memorial Endowment or supporting the UT Counseling and Mental Health Center, contact Maureen Brown, director of development for the Division of Student Affairs.

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