A $25 million gift from William “Bill” Starling ’75 and his wife, Dana, will be used to create the UNC Suicide Prevention Institute while working to implement suicide prevention strategies at UNC and across North Carolina.
The institute will operate out of the School of Medicine’s psychiatry department and be directed by Dr. Patrick Sullivan, the Yeargen Distinguished Professor of psychiatry and genetics and a world-renowned expert in psychiatric causation. He will lead a team tasked with improving outcomes for patients dealing with mental illness and suicidality.
Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody ’03 (MPH), the Assad Meymandi Distinguished professor and chair of UNC’s psychiatry department, will play a key role in implementing the institute’s objectives.
Sullivan said many measures of mental health have worsened over the past five years. “The bottom line is that at every level, many people are struggling. Rates of anxiety and depression have gone through the roof, and the impact on teens and their development has been especially massive,” he said in an article in the University’s newsletter The Well. “And one of the main red flags is attempted suicide and people who die by suicide.”
The mission of the UNC Suicide Prevention Institute, Sullivan said, is to be an “overarching entity that implements best practices in preventing suicide.”
The institute will initially involve clinicians, researchers and educators at UNC Health’s main campus, and later include additional experts statewide.
The institute won’t provide treatment, but will focus primarily on the causation and neurobiology of suicide, clinical prevention, outreach, community engagement and dissemination of best practices, Sullivan said. It will aim to connect with individuals, community stakeholders and other sites nationally and internationally to help experts identify groups considered at-risk for suicide.
“Our goal is to identify what we are doing well with respect to the treatment of people seen at UNC Health after a suicide attempt and bolster that, as well as to identify where we can do better,” Sullivan said. “The work has a short-term clinical focus, an intermediate preventive focus and a longer-term attempt to understand the neurobiology and genomics that are part of the causes for some people. As Bill Starling said to me, if our work can … prevent families from going through what they have experienced, it will have been worth it.”
The Starlings made the commitment for the institute following the suicides of their sons Tyler and Gregory.
“Our two children are gone, and it’s important to recognize their wonderful, short lives,” Bill Starling said in The Well. “I’m not sure how else to better do that than to help other families who may be struggling with their own children down the road. We want to recognize our children, and this is a special way to do that.”
According to the N.C. State Center for Health Statistics, there were 1,436 suicides statewide in 2020. Suicide was the second-leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 18 and the third-leading cause of death for people ages 19 to 34.
One suicide impacts hundreds of people, according to center statistics.
Anyone who is contemplating suicide should seek the Heels Care Network (care.unc.edu), a hub for UNC students, faculty and staff that provides mental health and well-being resources, including links to 24/7 support, training and suicide prevention resources. People can call 988 to connect directly to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, formerly called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
— Laurie D. Willis ’86