Schools evaluate suicide prevention strategies
By Lloyd Call
MANTI—Students who contemplate suicide are saying they are suffering and would like to end their pain, said Cathy Davis, a suicide prevention specialist from the Utah State Board of Education.
Speaking at a suicide prevention and awareness meeting Nov. 28 at South Sanpete School District offices, Davis told school board officials that young people often feel pain acutely and suicide is the end result of that pain.
“Young people react deeply to any major crisis or trauma at home, with their peers, as well as in their own lives,” Davis said.
For example, suppose a parent confiscates a young man’s cell phone for a week. That action of disconnecting the teen from his social support network may throw him into despondency, she said.
Davis presented suicide-related statistics to administrators from Juab, North Sanpete, South Sanpete and Sevier school districts, staff from the Central Utah Counseling Center and health care professionals. The most alarming ones are:
• Suicide is the leading cause of death, ages 10-17, and Utah has the fourth highest rate of suicide in the nation in that age category.
A 2017 survey showed 16 percent of students in grades 6-12 have seriously considered suicide, and most of those did not talk to an adult or counselor about those feelings. That translates to five students in a typical class size of 30.
• The average time young people who contemplate suicide spend from the first having suicidal thoughts to developing a plan leaves very little time to intervene.
South Sanpete Superintendent Kent Larsen said educators can have an influence on students at school, but many times the students return to chaotic homes, where the real problems grow.
“It’s all on us,” Larsen said. “It’s so frustrating sometimes to communicate to parents that their children have serious problems. We really want to help families, not just students.”
“This is their lives,” said Richfield High School principal Jack Shepherd. “I saw a study that says a teen who loses access to his electronic device may suffer the same anxiety as someone in heroin withdrawal. That’s a lot of suffering.
“Students may get most of their joy when someone ‘likes’ what they share. They may become seriously depressed if they get ‘dislikes’ on a Facebook account.”
Davis asked the group how comfortable they are talking about suicide. Only a few said they felt comfortable. Most of us have trouble dealing with suicide, because any suicide impacts the whole community, not just the immediate family, she said.
So when a young person considers suicide, who can he or she talk to confidentially? Davis said the answer, in part, may be the SafeUT app, which is a live hotline staffed by at least 60 master-level professionals.
“Helpers don’t just talk at them, they get on their side,” she said. “Someone thinking of suicide feels very alone and unconnected with the rest of the world.”
SafeUT has a response time of under a minute in most cases. Callers will never get a busy signal or answering machine.
“We learned this the hard way,” one of the visiting suicide prevention specialists said, “As we were setting up the system, we had one young woman who called and got an answering machine. She killed herself. So, now we make sure that doesn’t happen ever again.”
In the North Sanpete School District, last month, there were 107 chats on the SafeUT app, resulting in 35 tips to school and mental health officials. Most callers wanted to talk about bullying, suicide, cutting or depression. In the South Sanpete School District, in the same month, there were 119 chats and 47 tips.
When a helper (therapist staffing the SafeUT line) believes there is an imminent crisis, law enforcement can be notified of the tips immediately. These are called “active rescues,” and the hotline logs two to three a week. During the last four months, 160 active rescues were launched in the state of Utah.
What can schools do to prevent suicide?
Educators are usually aware if a student has experienced a trauma or crisis, the prevention specialists said. Just checking with the youth and asking, “How are you doing?” may be enough to get youth talking about their problems.
The key, Davis and others said, is connecting with them, letting them know it’s all right to talk about not just suicide, but all their problems.
“Schools should all be a nurturing environment, especially our elementary schools,” Larsen said. “As students get older, that nurturing gets harder. Schools have a lot of resources and should not hesitate to use them.”
Professionals from the Central Utah Counseling Center (CUCC) were also at the meeting. Libbie Hinckley, suicide prevention specialist for CUCC, said, “I feel like I’m underutilized. I would love to be a lot busier, making presentations to students, teachers, and parents.”
She teaches parenting classes now, but would like to teach more.
“We can teach parents, so they can teach their children,” she said. “For example, we know that children experience trauma that can seem large to them. We can teach them how to be more resilient and deal with those challenges before they happen.
“We know every child will have someone who doesn’t want to play with them, or a not be friends any longer,” she added. “If we give them the skills to handle those kinds of life challenges, then they learn to have support systems in place, even at an early age. We help students develop resiliency when facing hard challenges.”
Schools are already implementing many self-esteem programs. A Richfield representative shared some of his favorites. “We love the HOPE program, and all our schools have HOPE squads. (The squads consist of students who have been trained in suicide prevention to help their peers.)
“We also hold ‘Why Try’ classes, emphasizing that we should focus on how hard we try, not just on succeeding. A student may be a success who gets a B or C grade, if that’s the absolute best he or she can do. We need to help them feel good about those efforts.”
Davis shared some details of a new suicide prevention program called “Brave Today.” “Brave” stands for breathe, relax, ask, validate and engage. The ABCs of Brave are ask, breathe and connect. Suicide prevention specialists first help young people take a breath, slow down and share what is so painful in their lives. Then the interveners can validate what the youths are experiencing and engage them in connecting with support sources.
Superintendent Larsen summed up the experience. “We have a chance to educate people before the next crisis,” he said.