A look at suicide: Fort Smith schools proactive in approach to mental health support
Times Record - 3/3/2019
March 03-- Mar. 3--School can be difficult, especially in junior high and high school. Many students feel pressure to succeed, fit in, choose a career path or take care of friends and family members. For this reason, the Fort Smith School District has dedicated itself to providing multiple resources for students who may be at risk of depression, anxiety or suicide.
"What we're trying to do is provide wrap-around services for the students," Fort Smith Superintendent Doug Brubaker said. "You do have mental health therapists, counselors, nurses, the increased presence of security officers. All of those things factor into it."
Michael Farrell, director of student services, said the district is being more proactive with handling mental health. One way to do this is by promoting relationships. Farrell said students are often asked to consider the adults they would call, such as parent, teacher or coach, if they were in trouble.
This has "paid humongous dividends," Farrell said. "You're building a community (and) positive school climate."
Cherri Byford, lead secondary counselor who works at Darby Junior High, shared a similar message. The goal is to spend 75 percent of her time each week in face-to-face interactions with students.
Byford and her partner Kelly Daniels have met with each student twice. They give presentations on positive mental health and have discussions with older students about ways the staff can make them want to come to school and other ways to help them succeed. Byford even hosts a "kindness club" Wednesday mornings and a lunchtime club about managing stress.
"The more we can do proactively, the less responsive work I'll have to do," Byford said.
Responsive work is when a counselor is immediately available to students in a crisis. This can be a conversation about a student's mental wellbeing, which Byford said often leads to outside referrals, or providing their basic food and clothing needs before addressing any other stressors.
"We can't just focus everything on sitting in the classroom from bell to bell," Byford said. "There has to be a piece of supporting their social and emotional growth. If you don't have that, you won't get the academic piece."
Fort Smith counselors are "student advocates" in relation to personal/social, academics and careers, Byford said. This well-rounded approach helps students who may be depressed, anxious or suicidal due to pressure from academics or choosing a career path, which many times, begins in junior high.
Byford can't solve every issue for every student, but she can teach them different coping mechanisms, give them resources or just be a caring adult.
"There's so much development that it's hard for even the student to keep up with," Byford said of the junior high and high school years. "It means a lot to have that responsibility to guide them through that, so they come out on the other side -- to be a positive person in their life that will listen and help them problem solve."
From taboo to talking
Every Darby student is presented with curriculum about mental health and suicide. Byford said counselors used to focus mostly on vocational and academic success, but their role has evolved significantly.
One of Byford's responsibilities is showing students the signs of negative mental health and what to do if they are experiencing it. Farrell said this, or implementing activities, is common throughout the district. What once used to be a taboo topic is now a highlight of Fort Smith education.
Darby uses the curriculum "Aevidum," which means "I've got your back," in Latin. It's a weeklong course, Byford said, when the counseling staff partners with the health teachers to discuss topics such as drug use, adolescent development, positive problem solving, managing stress and conflict, and the difference between support and needing professional help.
Byford said students have responded well to the curriculum, fulfilling the district's goal of adding proactive measures to its available resources.
One of the newest options available to the district is the Safe School Hotline, Farrell said. Students can call if they are feeling depressed or suicidal and speak with a licensed counselor.
Farrell said counselors contact designated district employees, and potentially emergency services, to check in with the student.
Concerned students, parents and teachers may also use the hotline to submit an anonymous tip about another student they believe is at risk of hurting themselves.
Brubaker believes the hotline is one of the "most powerful tools" the district offers students, because it's accessible at any time. No student has to go without help, he said.
Farrell said this is another "access point" for the district to provide support to students who may be in crisis.
"I want the kids to know that if they are feeling down or depressed to call the hotline. We have support for every single student," Farrell said. "We're going to work tirelessly to get someone the support they need."
The Safe School Hotline can be accessed by calling 800-418-6423 ext. 359, texting TIPS to 66746 or visiting safeschoolhelpline.com.
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