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WIU Implements Suicide Prevention Navigator Pilot Program With University of Colorado

Did you know suicide is the second leading cause of death among National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) student-athletes? This emerging concern struck Western Illinois University student-athletes and staff hard and a suicide prevention program was established.

All thanks to a partnership with the University of Colorado Johnson Depression Center (JDC), this pilot program known as VitalCog: Suicide Prevention Navigator (VC SPN) was implemented at WIU to train student-athletes and athletics staff to become peer navigators, allowing WIU to be a hub for this initiative.

The NCAA has awarded $100,000 to four research teams during the 2023-24 academic year to enhance student-athletes psychosocial well-being and mental health through innovative projects. This marks the ninth year of the NCAA Innovations in Research and Practice Grant Program. Selected from 80 proposals, the recipients include Cornell's financial literacy project, Alabama and Michigan State's mental health narratives, WIU’s suicide prevention program and New Haven and Massachusetts' branding and mental well-being intervention. The findings from these projects will be shared with the broader NCAA membership in 2024.

The VitalCog: Suicide Prevention Navigator (VC SPN) Program seeks to:

- Train athletes and staff to become Peer Navigators with a three-hour program designed to provide tools and knowledge to administer the program beyond the training.

- Allow these trained individuals to deliver knowledge and resources to other athletes and staff 

- Peer Navigators deliver training independently on a case-by-case basis. 

- Peer Navigators attend monthly meetings conducted by WIU clinical staff to address concerns, offer advice and share resources, and activities. 

“VitalCog allows me to spread awareness about suicide prevention and hopefully be there for any student-athletes that are struggling,” WIU Peer Navigator Rachel Baliano, and senior Communication major said.

Currently, WIU has 10 Peer Navigators and seven certified athletics staff members to deliver the program. So far, these trainers have provided 15 training sessions and helped 237 student-athletes representing 12 sports and 33 athletics staff members.

“Mental health and well-being are important to consider for all students, but student-athletes often face unique stressors and the VitalCog Suicide Prevention Peer Navigator program helped address those. The Peer Navigators invested time out of their busy schedules to support their peers by providing them with the necessary skills to identify, support and communicate with peers in distress. Opportunities to train athletics staff and student-athletes result in an opportunity to create a system of care for mental health concerns, versus a focus solely on Counseling Center services. I am grateful to have had an opportunity to collaborate with Professionals across campus, and the United States, but beyond that, grateful to the Peer Navigators who showed compassion to their peers,” University Counseling Center Director Cara Cerullo said. 

How other campuses can get involved:

- The VC SPN program is:

 Purposefully developed to be implemented across various institutions. 

- Relatively simple and cost-effective.

- It can be adapted to meet individual needs and resources.

*Peer Navigators are student-athletes and athletics staff, not clinicians, they do not provide clinical support for mental health issues.

For more information on VC Training, visit

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