UND graduate student helps bring suicide support group online
Allison McGauvran, a doctoral student at the School of Medicine & Health Sciences, is interning with the support group as part of a project for her occupational therapy program. TEARS was founded in 2004 and members meet in Grand Forks each month.
GRAND FORKS — Altru Health System’s TEARS program will soon add a virtual component to reach more people. A UND graduate student with a connection to the program is helping bring about the change.
Allison McGauvran, a doctoral student at the School of Medicine & Health Sciences, is interning with the support group as part of a project for her occupational therapy program. TEARS — which stands for Together we Educate About the Realities of Suicide — was founded in 2004, with members meeting in Grand Forks each month.
Making the trip can be difficult for people who live in more rural areas in northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota. By going online, McGauvran is hoping she can improve access to the group for people who have lost a family member or friend to suicide.
McGauvran experienced a family tragedy in 2015, when her brother, Eric, died by suicide. Her Thompson, North Dakota-based family attended TEARS support group sessions and found they helped them process what had happened. She remembered the group when it came time for her doctoral project.
“I was thinking about (doing my project) along the lines of grief,” McGauvran said. “I started looking into different agencies to see which would line up with the idea I had in mind. I had known about TEARS from when I had my loss, so I reached out to them and luckily they were able to take me on.”
McGauvran is now reaching out to rural hospitals and communities to let them know there will be an online component to TEARS. The first virtual session is set to be held on Tuesday, Feb. 22.
After being formed privately in 2004, the group joined forces with Altru in 2012. Melanie Neumann has been the TEARS program coordinator there for the last two years. There hasn’t been an intern in that time, she said. Neumann attended an event similar to TEARS in Crookston at the end of 2021. While there, she was told of the need for support groups in rural areas for people who may not be able to travel to Grand Forks for the monthly in-person sessions. When McGauvran reached out to her, she knew it was time to bring the program into the virtual realm to serve more people.
“There's just all kinds of need,” Neumann said. “Just to be able to provide a service to people – it may not be in person – but it's a way to get some help so that they don't have to leave their house.”
McGauvran attended some training sessions, and will act as a facilitator when the virtual sessions begin. She isn’t a counselor, and the sessions aren't meant to be such. She will guide the discussions, while acting as a mediator.
“It's just the chance to process different emotions or experiences with others who've had similar experiences,” she said.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, North Dakota ranks 17th in the nation in terms of its suicide rate. There were 147 suicide deaths in 2020, for a rate of 18.74 deaths per 100,000 people. In Minnesota there were 739 deaths in 2020, for a rate of 13.09 deaths per 100,000. Minnesota is ranked 40th in the nation for its suicide rate.
McGauvran said recent research indicates that suicide impacts more people than immediate family members, and that it is a misconception that grief will go away over time.
“It's always going to be there,” she said. “It's just finding ways to adapt to the loss and learning how to progress.”
After her son, Michael, died by suicide in 2003, Sandy Kovar co-founded TEARS the following year with Marilyn Ripplinger, who was then her son’s guidance counselor at Red River High School. Kovar said she found out quickly that she wasn’t the only person dealing with the suicide of a family member, and TEARS was their way to support the community after a loss.
Kovar said she thinks it’s important to add an online component to TEARS, to expand the group’s service area to include people who live outside of the region.
“There are people that don't have the resources to get to an in-person group.," Kovar said. "Maybe virtually is their way of reaching out.”
TEARS meets in person in Grand Forks on the third Thursday of each month, from 7-8:30 p.m. The virtual sessions will be held each month on the second Monday and fourth Tuesday at the same time. More information about the group can be found at altru.org/tears , or on the TEARS Facebook page. Information can be obtained by emailing email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.