Strengthening suicide prevention

Strengthening suicide prevention

Strengthening youth, strengthening suicide prevention
Kentucky School Advocate
September 2017
By Madelynn Coldiron
Staff writer
Health education and Sources of Strength Club students at Butler Traditional High School hold up “thank you” cards that identify the positive adult mentors and friends in their life as part of a Sources of Strength event. (Photo: Butler Traditional HS) Many school districts this year will be shifting gears in youth suicide prevention, using a new program that relies more on building students’ inner strength and less on traditional prevention methods.

Using a five-year federal grant, the state Department for Behavioral Health, Development and Intellectual Disabilities is ramping up a peer-led program called Sources of Strength in which students themselves play a large role in the project.
Health education and Sources of Strength Club students at Butler Traditional
High School hold up “thank you” cards that identify the positive adult mentors
and friends in their life as part of a Sources of Strength event last school year.
They’re also wearing the T-shirts that all students in the program get. 
(Photo courtesy of Butler Traditional High School) 

In past years, the agency has used curriculum-based suicide prevention programs, “but what we kept hearing in our schools was that they simply didn’t have time during their school day to add additional curriculum,” said Patti Clark, the state suicide prevention coordinator. “Sources of Strength is a peer-led program that focuses on resiliency and it’s done outside the classroom – it’s about messaging and using messaging to change the norms in a school or other organization.”

Under the guidance of trained advisors, the students who are the program’s peer leaders decide on five to seven messaging campaigns throughout the year. For example, a message around strength is designed to remind students that there are trusted adults in a school that they can turn to.

“It is very much resiliency based – looking at giving you hope, looking at ways to get help and then thinking about your internal strengths and how you use those to get through the hard stuff,” Clark said.
A few of the 50 Sources of Strength peer leaders at Butler Traditional High School pose with health teacher Mary Wurst last school year. (Photos courtesy of Butler Traditional High School) Youth are more receptive to this kind of preventive programming “because it becomes theirs,” she added. The peer leaders are chosen from the different groups in a school, not just the obvious leaders. The advantage of a program that builds resilience is that those strengths also can be applied across other areas of risk like drug abuse, bullying and violence prevention.

Butler Traditional High School in Jefferson County is entering its third year in the program and health teacher Mary Wurst said she’s surprised that it’s not in every school.

“I think it’s saving kids’ lives,” she said. “I know we have saved lives at Butler.”

Wurst said her school has always had a positive climate and culture, and Sources of Strength “is just the icing on the cake in this building.”

About 15 to 20 schools are lined up to receive training in the Sources of Strength program, while 60 or so have expressed interest, Clark said. The state has enough funding for 100 to 120 schools to implement it.

As part of the program, the schools also look at their policies and procedures “related to identifying kids at risk,” Clark said. Based on that examination, the schools work on a plan to make improvements.
What about younger students?
Sharon Todd, elementary vice president of the Kentucky School Counselor Association, was an elementary school counselor before moving to Boyle County Middle School this year. She said more suicide prevention efforts are aimed at middle and high schoolers, but “I wonder at some point if we’re going to have to look at teaching these lessons to our younger students. Because kids do have those thoughts and unfortunately those things do happen with fifth-graders.”

Currently, state law requires suicide awareness information to be given to middle and high school students by Sept. 1 each year.

“At the elementary level, last year was a very challenging year for me as an elementary counselor,” Todd said, “because I had so many fifth-graders who were making those comments of wanting to commit suicide thinking about committing suicide. And I had more than I ever had at the elementary level.”
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