By Hannah Heimbuch
Homer Middle School unfurled a new program on Monday, one touted as a progressive approach to talking to youth about suicide.
“I think the thing that’s nice about this is it’s a national screening process,” said Homer Middle School Principal Kari Lee Dendurent. “It’s research-based; they’ve already tested it, they’ve already piloted it.”
Dendurent has implemented the program once before as an administrator in the Mat-Su district, and said it is a proactive rather than reactive method for discussing suicide.
In that instance, the program fostered conversation about suicide, its risk factors and root causes, and helped identify students that needed additional resources.
“It’s a good venue to get the information out and identify students at risk,” Dendurent said.
Students began on Monday by watching a DVD, then completed a questionnaire regarding their health and potential thoughts about suicide.
A team of counselors, school psychologists and administrators will review the answers, and — when appropriate — enact the district’s suicide risk response protocol.
“We have a scoring guide,” Dendurent said, “and based on what it states, we’ll make the determination if someone is in dire need of speaking to somebody.”
Every student also filled out a simple comment card, checking a box that designates they either did or did not wish to speak to someone. Students have an option to ask for help for either themselves, a friend or a family member.
This is just a way to funnel resources to students and families that may not have had access to the help they needed, Dendurent said.
“(We’re) making sure that they know that there are just resources out there, that they don’t have to shoulder it alone,” she said.
Education on tough subjects like suicide is key, said middle school parent Melody Ramsey, who supports an open dialogue between youth and adults about these concerns.
“Talking about issues such as suicide is beneficial to these youth because, unfortunately, it is an issue in our society,” Ramsey said. “These kids have already been introduced to this issue, and us not talking about it is only leaving them with the information they are giving and receiving from each other, and forms of media that aren’t offering prevention or coping skills.”
Suicide affects everyone somehow, she said, whether students have experienced a risk, attempt or completed suicide in their community, family or friend group.
Her only concern regarding this new program at her daughter’s school, Ramsey said, is how the information is presented, and how well the concerned adults will follow up with students about this information.
“Depression and thoughts of hurting yourself can be very overwhelming,” she said, “and if the information that someone is presenting isn’t appropriate, then it can harm the already depressed person.”
Ramsey plans to talk with her daughter about the information presented Monday, and ask her opinion and thoughts about it. It’s not uncommon for them to talk about these kinds of issues, she said, but unfortunately not every parent-child relationship allows for that kind of difficult discussion. This program might offer an alternative to that, she said.
“SOS could allow an opportunity for a child who can’t talk to their parent to seek information or even ask for help,” Ramsey said.
This presentation of the Signs of Suicide screening and information program will act as a pilot, Dendurent said, and may later be implemented throughout middle and high schools across the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.
Middle school is a tumultuous age, Dendurent said, with hormones, relationships and home conflicts just a few of the stress factors youth face. Trying to transition into adulthood, learning how to take risks — healthy or unhealthy — is no simple process for any young person.
This schoolwide screening allows them to make contact with clearly at-risk students, as well as those who might not appear to be at risk on the outside, Dendurent said.
“We want to say to students it’s OK, we’re here to help, we’re not here to judge you, we want you to speak out,” she added.
Depression and self-injury are growing issues among young adults, said a letter sent home to parents last week, and treating these risk factors is one way to combat the preventable tragedy of suicide. Often, however, the stress of asking for help for yourself or a friend is an overwhelming task to take on. This program aims to make that difficult process a little easier, Dendurent said, by making the resources as available as possible.
Students were also sent home with an informational newsletter, similar to the one their parents received with last week’s letter home from the school.
This information goes over options for accessing help and coping with bullying, cyber-safety, substance abuse, depression, sexuality and many other stress factors.
Alaska has the highest rate of suicide in the country, according to the Statewide Suicide Prevention Council. At 21.8 instances per 100,000 people in 2007, the northern-most state nearly doubles the national per capita rate. According to the American Association of Suicidology, more than 90 percent of those who die by suicide suffer from a treatable mental or substance abuse disorder.
A common stigma attached to the subject of suicide is that, if you talk about it, you risk actually giving those considering it more thoughts about attempting it. Research proves that the opposite is true, Dendurent said, and that offering opportunities to discuss and ask for resources is a proven method to decrease suicide attempts.
Next year they will likely run the program at the start of the school year, Dendurent said, and hopes other schools will follow suit.
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