By Sarah J. Tarquini, Ph.D.
A Doctoral Dissertation Defended 2010
The role of peer gatekeepers is crucial in connecting individuals at risk for suicide related behaviors to mental health service providers. However, limited research has focused on the role of peers as potential helpers for those at-risk. The current study utilized a mixed experimental and correlational design to examine predictors of female college students’ referral intentions following hypothetical interactions with peers at-risk for suicide related behavior. More specifically, the current project examined the utility of an extended Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) model of peer-referral intentions. In addition to the original TPB constructs of attitudes, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control associated with referring a peer to a mental health professional, attitudes towards seeking professional help, perceived stigma associated with seeking professional psychological help, emotional competence, and symptom severity were incorporated into an extended TPB model. The sample included 284 female college students. Participants completed computer-based questionnaires both before and after the presentation of a theoretically and empirically informed vignette describing a peer who was characterized as low, moderate, or high risk for suicide related behavior. The results of this study suggest the utility of applying an extended TPB model to intentions to refer at-risk peers for mental health services. The final trimmed model, which included all of the aforementioned constructs except symptom severity, accounted for 78.9% of the variance in referral intentions. The findings indicate that, in particular, preventative interventions would likely benefit from emphasizing the role of attitudes towards receiving mental health services, attitudes towards peer referral, and subjective norms regarding peer referral, in order to maximize the role of peers as gatekeepers for college students in distress. Incorporating the findings from this study with findings from future research will hopefully lead to more informed, empirically-based interventions for enhancing peer referrals.