New Bethel School District program works to stop teen suicides
Register-Guard - 2/10/2019
Feb. 10--It was around 12:30 a.m. on April 17 when a Eugene couple nearly lost their 16-year-old daughter to suicide.
The nightmare, as they described it, began with the 'ding' of text message alert.
"Very urgent," it read. "It's about (your daughter). My son just woke me up and said that she took a bunch of painkillers and is trying to kill herself. Please respond that you got this, because I'm about to call 911."
The couple ran to their daughter's room and found her semi-conscious and breathing. They called 911 and the girl was taken by ambulance to PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Springfield where she remained for 10 days, five of which were in a medically induced coma. The family later found a suicide note, an empty bottle of alcohol and two empty bottles of Nyprosen, a prescription-strength form of Advil.
The girl has since fully recovered from the incident, and and suffered no long-term health problems. And while the couple are overwhelmingly grateful that their daughter is alive, they say more needs to be done in Eugene and throughout Oregon to prevent youth suicides and suicide attempts. The parents are not being identified by The Register-Guard because of concerns that publicizing their names could cause further harm to their daughter.
"Kids need to know that it's OK to fail," the father said. "They need to know that it's OK to get upset and that there's so much more life that's ahead of them. They need to know that they're more than just who they compare themselves to on Instagram -- that they can get through the hard stuff."
A local school district is working to deliver some of those messages -- and in the process reduce the number of youth suicides in the area -- with a new, peer-based program that focuses on helping students to identify their own inner strengths and resilience, as well as identify signs of depression and anxiety and to reach out for help when needed.
Sources of Strength, a program used by the Bethel School District, emphasizes positive school culture through open communication and discussion. It also attempts to normalize feelings of anxiety and depression in an effort to lessen the negative connotations often associated with such mental health issues.
In addition to shifting school and youth culture, local mental health professionals also believe the program will help to de-stigmatize mental illness and promote overall wellness.
Creating space for students to have potentially challenging conversations about depression, anxiety, heartache or suicide with their peers is key to saving lives, said Roger Brubaker, Lane County Health suicide prevention coordinator.
"When you connect people with a circle of support and compassion and people who are willing to have a conversation in a way that's freeing, it normalizes the concept that is discussing trauma and heartache, which is an important part of being healthy," he said. "This program goes a step further and balances that by providing people with the skills to identify the strengths they have to deal with that trauma or heartache, rather than just open those wounds."
While the daughter of the Eugene couple has been home-schooled since third grade and doesn't attend classes in the Bethel district, her story represents an all too frequent experience among teens in the area -- suicide is the second leading cause of death among 10- to 24-year-olds in Oregon. The most recent examples include the suicide deaths of eight Lane County youths, ages 11 to 24, in 2018 -- five of them between mid-January and late April, according to Lane County Public Health officials.
The county typically averages seven adolescent suicides per year.
Sources of Strength aims to recognize students' feelings but not dwell on negative thoughts to the point of hopelessness, said Dawn Delorefice, an assistant principal at Willamette High School.
"We want to let students know that what they're feeling is real and honor those feelings but then help them move forward in a positive way," Delorefice said. "So often we're consumed with what we're feeling and we can't see past what's happening right now, but we want to equip students with the skills to be able to see how things can improve, and help them to find the strength to get there."
The program seeks to reach students before life's challenges become so overwhelming that they feel as if there's no way out, said Bethel District Health Center director Brooke Cottle. It also aims to support and empower peer leaders and caring adults through "connection, hope, help and strength."
"We want to be proactive and get out in front of the issue to do as much as we can to try and prevent youth suicides," she said. "And we're so excited about this opportunity to try and do that."
Alarming rates of depression, suicide and mental health issues among students is what prompted Bethel School District Superintendent Chris Parra to begin looking at options. Following Parra's research, she presented two suicide prevention programs to leadership teams at Bethel middle and high schools. The teams settled on Sources of Strength.
"As a team we knew there was a need for more support for our students," Parra said. "And, we agreed on Sources for two specific reasons. One, it has more research behind it. Two, its reach goes beyond suicide prevention and we liked the approach of focusing on strengths and wellness."
For Parra, adopting a suicide prevention program was a natural and logical next step in helping students.
"We are seeing a growing need for student support around mental health issues at all grades," Parra said "Helping students recognize that they have strengths, supports and people who care about them is critical. We care deeply about helping our students so they're able to stay in school and learn, but also so they can live healthy and happy lives outside of school."
Following the rash of youth suicides last spring, Eugene pediatrician Dr. Pilar Bradshaw decided to take action and organized a teen suicide prevention summit.
Now, she's helping the Bethel district get its prevention efforts up and running by paying the initial $8,700 bill to implement Sources of Strength at the middle school and high school level.
Last spring Bradshaw invited school district superintendents, mental health specialists, students, teachers, parents who had recently lost a child to suicide, community leaders, nonprofit organizations, physicians, legislators and more to the summit. The $15,000 effort was paid for by Bradshaw through the two healthcare companies she owns -- Eugene Pediatrics Associates and Thrive Behavioral Health.
At the summit, Bradshaw presented a program similar to Sources of Strength called "Hope Squad," which was designed to prevent teen suicides through positive school culture. The longtime doctor pleaded with superintendents and other staff from Springfield, Bethel and Eugene district representatives to get involved and adopt the programming and even offered to help fund it.
Though superintendents and teachers in the area expressed interest in the program, they didn't immediately choose to implement it. Officials in the Eugene and Springfield districts did not respond to requests for comment regarding why they chose not move forward with the program.
But cost may be a factor.
At the summit, Bradshaw estimated it would cost about $100,000 to start the program in all middle schools and high schools in the three main Eugene-Springfield area districts.
Now that the Bethel district is working to adopt Sources of Strength, Bradshaw says remains hopeful that other districts will follow suit.
"Currently, in Lane County this is the No. 1 health concern of adolescents," she said. "One-in-three kids are depressed, one-in-four contemplate suicide and one-in-five have tried it. That's a staggering number."
Despite Bradshaw's help, the program is still expensive to maintain.
In addition to the initial $8,700, it costs about $3,000 per year to maintain the program in all of the schools. The Bethel district has two middle schools and two K-8 schools as well as two high schools. The program is being implemented in grades six through 12. About 2,850 middle school and high school students were enrolled in the district as of Friday, district spokesman Pat McGillivray said.
Cottle, the district health center director, said the district is "committed" to the programming.
"After the initial costs it's only $500 per school per year, so it's much more manageable," she said. "We're definitely hoping to fund it through a couple of sources -- maybe some private donations or grants -- but we're committed financially for sure."
Building a sense of community support
Sources of Strength is a peer-based program that promotes positivity, connectivity, school bonding, peer-adult partnerships and help-seeking behavior. Students in the program work to establish a positive culture at school through activities, awareness campaigns, interactions with students and other forms of outreach.
As part of the program, students brainstorm ideas for how to best reach other students and how to create a positive school environment. They also establish different types of campaigns, such as generosity campaigns, where students spread kind messages to each other or trusted adult campaigns during which students take photos with an adult they trust and post them around the school. The goal of such campaigns is to help students identify sources of support or protection to rely on when life gets difficult or something unexpected happens
Although students in the Bethel district are in the very beginning stages of the program and haven't established what campaigns or events may be organized, they were full of ideas during their first class period on Tuesday to ensure Sources of Strength will flourish at the school. Those ideas included assemblies and movie nights.
Jill Baker, a counselor and suicide prevention coordinator for the South Albany High School, where Sources of Strength was implemented in 2014, gave some examples of how students at the school have made the program meaningful. The school, where about 1,300 students are enrolled, is located in the Greater Albany School District about 40 miles north of Eugene.
One of Baker's favorite student-crafted campaigns followed the 2016 presidential election when organizers cut squares out of card stock and asked each student in the school to identify one thing that they feel makes them "unique," or that they identified as a core value. The students then collected the squares and organized them to spell out a large "SAHS" -- the school's acronym -- and followed it up with a video.
"Our campus has a high percentage of Latino students, and the election brought up some ugliness that did not fit with who we are and what South Albany High School represents," Baker said. "(The campaign showed) that it didn't matter if you were the first in your family to graduate or the daughter of immigrants (and) focused on unity and the fact that we are all part of the SAHS family and that our differences make us stronger unless we allow them to divide us."
That and other efforts, experts say, are important in building a sense of community.
"Research tells us that when students feel like they're a part of something, and like they have a community of support, they're much more likely to talk to someone when they're feeling down," Delorefice said. "They're less likely to feel alone."
Both staff and students say they are eager to begin the fight against suicide, especially following student deaths last year. About 75 teachers, administrators and other staff and about 170 students recently were trained in the program, which includes an elective class as well as a club.
Sol Flores, a 15-year-old freshman at Willamette High School and one of 80 students enrolled in the first Sources of Strength class at the school, hopes to support fellow students in ways that allow them to feel safe and included.
"When you hear that someone killed themselves ... that's really sad," Flores said. "But I understand what they were going through. They weren't getting enough help or support (from) people. But it was a wake-up call, and I think we're awake now. People need more support."
Likewise, the cluster of youth suicides last year made 16-year-old Haley Montgomery also want to become more involved.
"With my personality, I feel a need to help others if they need it," said Montgomery, a sophomore. "I'm willing to speak up in front of crowds, even though I'm shy, if it could help someone, if it could change their future."
The student training that took place a couple of weeks ago helped Montgomery to see her peers in a new light and feel more comfortable with people she didn't normally interact with, she said.
"With the training I found it easier to talk to other people," she said. "The games we played required me not to just latch on to my friends. It helped me get out of my head and interact with people and now it doesn't feel as scary to talk to people who aren't in my group of friends."
As the district implements the program, teachers and administrators are hopeful.
"We had a really tough year last year," said Misty Griesi, a Willamette High School English teacher who will be leading the Sources program. "But we're so excited about what this program can do for our students. We want to help build better humans, help them to grow and know that they're strong. We want students to feel safe at school and like they can go to a trusted adult with their problems or feelings."
Baker, the South Albany High School counselor, said that Sources of Strength has had a tremendous impact on South students and staff and said the program has worked well at the high school for a couple of reasons.
The first, she said, is that it focuses on what to do when "life has you down, rather than just teaching folks how to recognize when a person is in crisis," Baker said.
"Prevention and intervention are both vital components to making a difference in the rates of suicide," she said.
The second reason Baker praises the program is that is uses a powerful population -- teenagers.
"The research is clear," Baker said. "Teenagers will tell their friends far earlier than they will tell adults if they are having thoughts of suicide. By equipping teenagers to how to find their strengths amidst life's ups and downs, we are adding in a layer of protection for the students who are trained in Sources and anyone in their social network."
Follow Alisha Roemeling on Twitter @alisharoemeling. Email email@example.com
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