A closer look at suicide prevention

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Editor's note: The state Department of Public Health held its annual Massachusetts Suicide Prevention Conference on April 4 and 5 at the Sheraton Framingham Hotel & Conference Center. Some 450 people attended day, participating in workshops under the theme of "Overcoming Challenges: Suicide Prevention Across the Lifespan." This article addresses one of the key venues where suicide prevention work can take place: schools.

FRAMINGHAM — When it comes to suicide prevention and youth, the discussion typically involves school administrators, parents, clinicians, social workers, even members of law enforcement and physicians. But often it's the children, teens and young adults themselves who are left out of talks about it, subsequently leaving them in the dark on an important matter.

But at the state's annual Suicide Prevention Conference, held last week, several speakers addressed and emphasized the need to give young people safe, healthy opportunities to talk about what suicide is, and to take a proactive role in preventing it from happening.

"Students have to be at the table when it comes to helping and supporting them," said Brandy Brooks. "There is a role for all of us in preventing suicide."

She and Lurena Lee co-presented "The "S" Word: The Role of Schools in Preventing Suicide" at the conference on behalf of the state Department of Public Health's Suicide Prevention Program. The title of the talk is also the title of a training program that's offered to school personnel to help them implement programs in schools; such training is required by state law.

While Massachusetts has among the lowest rates of death by suicide in the country, communities are not immune to the issue. A state public health report released back in January revealed that there were 608 suicide deaths in 2014 (the most recent public data set available).

Also, according to results from the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey of self-reported information provided by more than 3,000 Massachusetts students in grades 8-12, there was a significantly higher risk of suicide indicated for students who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, versus their heterosexual and cisgender (those who identify with their birth sex) peers. Some 43 percent of LGBTQ students reported inflicting self harm in that past year versus the 14 percent of straight peers who hurt themselves. And 22 percent of LGBTQ respondents reported making a suicide attempt that year compared with the less than 5 percent of heterosexual students who had also attempted suicide.

Beyond this, Brooks said, exponentially more students consider the idea of taking their own life, while even more struggle with emotions, trauma, abuse and other sources of conflict that can make young people prone to risky behavior or experiencing suicidal thoughts.

"The problem is when the communities in which [young people] live, work and play are not supportive, connective and welcoming," Brooks said.

She added, "You never know what that thing is that's going to tip someone over."

In the early 2000s, the Needham community lost several young people, between the middle school age and college age, to suicide. While peer pressure, mental health conditions and stress are not direct causes of suicide, they can put a person more at risk. Knowing that, a small group of students approached the Needham High School administration about creating a more positive and inclusive school culture.

The result is what's known as the student-led "Own Your Peace/Own Your Piece" initiative, which encourages every member in the school to take care of their own well-being and to help take care of their community. Now in its ninth year, the program has a core group of 30 students who meet on Mondays at 7:15 a.m., to discuss ways to offer students opportunities to share what they are going through and to also celebrate the good things in life.

Six of those students attended the state suicide prevention conference last week to share their experience of how students can best be supported and how schools can play a role in facilitating a healthy school climate.

Over the years, the Own Your Peace efforts have yielded poster campaigns with positive messages created by students and staff; a wellness breakfast; a journal project; information tables at farmer's markets, and an "Own Your Peace/Own Your Piece Week" and "Make a Statement Day" assembly.

Each activity generates both one-on-one and small group conversations that help remind students and staff that they're not alone in their struggles.

Referring to "Make a Statement Day" during which students have shared personal stories of dealing with heavy issues — from bullying to racism to rape — with others, senior Max Coren said, "We've had some of the best conversations with how we get together that day."

In a word, it creates empathy.

While the students aren't counselors or therapists, many of them might find themselves in the thick of trying to help a troubled friend or themselves, which is why it's important to give young people resources and options to seek help, be it a hotline to call, a trusted adult to reach out to, or just the sense of not being judged but listened to.

The students shared various examples of what works: not being penalized by teachers for being distracted from school work in the case of a crisis; making accommodations for students who have anxiety; teachers sharing their "human side"; taking the time to talk as a class about social issues that may exist.

All these things, they said, can create a better sense of trust and belonging in a school or community.

"While it takes a long time to change a culture," junior Ben Cohen said, "It's important to get it started."


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