Q&A: Phillip Satow

Marjorie Malpiede / September 9, 2016

The Jed Foundation founder proves that good things can happen when bad things happen to good people

In talking with Phillip Satow, it quickly becomes clear why the non-profit organization he founded in memory of his son has become the leading voice for suicide prevention on college campuses.  Contemplative and articulate, Satow is one of those remarkable people that, when faced with a life-altering tragedy, creates something of great value to others.       

Even before The Jed Foundation became the standard-bearer for college mental health and suicide prevention, Phillip Satow had a distinguished profile as a business leader, philanthropist, and former college athlete from Columbia University. When his son, Jed, died by suicide while attending the University of Arizona, Satow and his wife, Donna, were determined to prevent other families from enduring the same unfathomable grief.

Far from a sentimental gesture by a grieving father, however, The Jed Foundation has been a change agent for college mental health ever since its inception in 2000. Its comprehensive approach on how to comprehensively promote mental health and prevent suicide on college campuses has transformed the way colleges and universities address these issues.  

Now, 16 years later, The Jed Foundation is again setting precedent with a “boots on the ground” approach to making safe, healthy students an institutional priority for college administrators.

Mary Christie Quarterly: What were your goals in founding The Jed Foundation?  

Phillip Satow: After we lost Jed, we visited the president at the University of Arizona who was very supportive and asked, “I have 35,000 students, what is it you’d like me to do?”

We realized then we had no answer, and our search to find the answer is what The Jed Foundation is all about.

Donna and I thought a lot about what a university should do to prevent this kind of thing from happening, but back then, we really didn’t have a clue. We realized there wasn’t an organization focused on answering that question.  We couldn’t do anything about Jed, but we thought, maybe we could prevent other families from feeling the devastation we felt.

MCQ: What did you find when you asked college administrators, “What are you doing to prevent suicide?”

PS: We often heard the same answer: “We have a counseling center and when students need it, they go there.” Many counseling centers, however, were severely limited in full time staff. Another real problem was that few universities were focused adequately on prevention. Suicide is the end of a continuum, and schools need to start at the beginning of that continuum.

Preventing suicide is not only a question of appropriate treatment. It is a community issue that requires a public health mentality. One needs to be thinking about the college environment. Kids shouldn’t feel hopeless and alone. Friends need to be helping friends, and administrators, faculty, and gatekeepers on campus need to prioritize wellness.

MCQ: How did you go about building out your mission?

PS:  I was the first to say, “I don’t know a lot about this area. Let me organize a panel of experts and gather the research. What are the problems? Where are the gaps?” I think this mindset was key for The Jed Foundation. Much of what The Jed Foundation does has been supported by published literature, outcomes data, and a model that has proven to be effective.

We spoke with leaders at the American Psychiatric Association and other leading psychiatrists and experts in suicidology and college mental health. We realized that we could work with a small number of universities vertically – visit them, spend time with them, and make sure that they were doing the right things.  

Alternatively, to improve our reach, we could develop a guiding model that included a set of policies to be effectively implemented, a model that could be applied to any college and university and be customized for their own campus culture.

This is what we decided to do.  

In our research, we had come across a study in a British medical journal about how the Air Force had initiated a multi-faceted program that resulted in a significant reduction in suicides. It was particularly analogous to our efforts because the military is also a boundaried community.

In looking at what they had done, we saw it was a combination of both prevention and treatment activities. We adapted that model to serve college communities. That became The Jed Foundation model, which serves as our comprehensive approach to mental health promotion and suicide prevention.

MCQ: Can you describe this approach?

PS: The model is very inclusive and often requires behavioral change. It involves everything from having a 24-hour treatment service so, if a student has a psychotic break in the middle of the night, you have the capacity to respond; to developing medical leave policies that aren’t alienating and don’t discourage students from seeking help; to applying a means restriction strategy so that you eliminate things that can be dangerous to students.

Are your roofs closed off? Do you need to change closet rods so they will break? If you can intervene at the moment people are considering suicide, they may never act.

MCQ: How is all of this applied?

PS: The Jed Campus Program is a four-year agreement with an individual school that starts with an assessment of a school’s policies, programs, and systems to find out what they have and what they need. What is the landscape for mental health on your campus? What are your gaps?

We then work with them to develop a strategic plan for mental wellness and substance abuse based on our model with representatives from all aspects of the university. This is The Jed Foundation safety net.

MCQ: Was it difficult at first to get colleges and universities to engage with you?

PS: Sadly, many of our early partners were schools that had experienced tragedy. Many college officials didn’t know what to do. But now we have over 200 institutions working with us who get that it’s about preventing the tragedy. These are “Jed Campus schools.”

A lot of our success at engagement is marketing. You need medical marketing programs because you can’t develop a marketing program without appropriate medical collaboration. We used PR and partnerships with groups like MTV and the Clinton Foundation to help spread the word. It is important to market wellness to students and other stakeholders to make it a way of life on campus.


MCQ: Have you seen a mind-shift in how people are thinking about these issues?  

PS: We’ve seen a lot of progress. What we’re hoping is that fewer and fewer students will need treatment because of the public health programming that colleges are putting in place. That’s really prevention tied in with treatment.

I think that’s one of the great things that The Jed Foundation brought to college health in general — and one of the things I’m most proud of —the appreciation for the need for community prevention as well as appropriate treatment.

MCQ: How has the Foundation changed? What is next?

PS: As we grew over time, we realized we could be even more effective if we could have a different relationship with the universities. If we could actually visit them and have boots on the ground, we could do this even better.

But my goodness, there are over 4,000 colleges. How big would our foundation need to be?  

We’re still grappling with that question, but right now, we have four experts and five or six consultants who are visiting schools all over the country and working directly with practitioners on the model. We need more people in order to fulfill this next phase of our mission, so we’re actively fundraising in order to have the resources to work with more schools.

One way we are hoping to fund this is by asking individuals, often alumni, to fund an on-site Jed Foundation partnership for, say, an entire state system. The response has been very promising.

MCQ: So what is the pitch?

PS: I would say, “Do you realize that for less than a dollar per student you can put a safety net under colleges in this country? For about $100,000, you can subsidize 17 schools. Now imagine those 17 schools in your state, and each has an average of 22,000 students. That’s 370,000 kids you are putting a safety net under. How can you better spend your money?”

MCQ: What still needs to happen?

PS: In my view, many college presidents are primarily focused on academics, prestige, and development. I would like to see more of them take this issue on in the way John Sexton did at NYU. It’s important that the leader of the university takes a strong stand on the kind of wellness experience students are having.  

One of the tenets of our strategic planning process is ensuring that someone from the president’s office be an active participant.

MCQ: Do you think college presidents are getting this message?

PS: Over time, I think there are fewer and fewer who aren’t. If alerted, I think college presidents would say, “Yes, I want a safety net. I certainly don’t want students to be at risk on my campus. Tell me, campus executives, how do we make that happen here?”

I’d love every college president to show this kind of interest in our mission.

MCQ: Has the Jed Foundation answered the question the president asked you shortly after Jed’s death: “What can I do to prevent this from happening?

We have a lot of work still to do, but at least we can say the following to any college or university: “If you do these things, you will see positive change.”


For more information about The Jed Foundation, visit www.jedfoundation.org.