PORTLAND — A college student contemplating suicide is more likely to talk to a peer about the problem than set up an appointment at the counseling center, said psychologist Micheline Hagan.

If University of Southern Maine students are trained to recognize the signs of mental illness, they can connect classmates in crisis with the help they need, she said.

Hagan was hired by the university in September to run a three-year program that aims to create a network of students who are able to identify warning signs of suicide and prepared to offer help.

The program’s launch coincides with a particularly grim semester, during which three USM students died. At least one of those deaths was a suicide. The cause of the other two deaths has not been determined but was not suspicious in either case, said Bob Caswell, a spokesman for the university.

Caswell said he could recall six student suicides in the past decade, but there may have been more. He said the university isn’t always informed about the cause of student deaths that occur off campus.

The new suicide prevention program, called USM Cares, is funded by a $306,000 grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which awarded $1.8 million this year for similar efforts on campuses across the nation.

This semester, Hagan has worked with USM’s Health and Counseling Services to screen students for depression and stress. Counselors assess the information from anonymous surveys and offer advice.

About half of the students who were screened chose to continue an online dialogue with a counselor, and most of them ended up making counseling appointments, Hagan said.

At the same time, short training sessions to raise awareness about mental illness have begun on campus for students, faculty and staff. Next semester, students can participate in a six-week training session and become part of the student support network.

In the past, it’s been up to those who are suffering to seek help from the counseling center themselves, Hagan said.

Training people to spot the signs and follow up with questions is an approach that treats mental illness as a public health problem, she said.

“The responsibility lies with all of us,” said Hagan.

After a student died in his dorm room on the Gorham campus last week, fraternity Kappa Delta Phi held a candlelight vigil to remember him.

USM student body president Chris Camire said about 250 people attended. Although the cause of the student’s death has not been determined by the medical examiner’s office, the vigil inspired some to share their experiences with suicide.

Camire, who is also the vice president of the fraternity, said it was the first time the campus came together this semester to recognize the loss of a student.

“We wanted to do something to wake the community up,” he said.

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at: 791-6364 or at

lbridgers@pressherald.com