Educators beef up suicide-prevention efforts

Compass Academy senior D’Artagnan Starkey remembers dozens of locals launching lighted lanterns at night over the Snake River in remembrance of a peer’s suicide a few years ago.

The death wasn’t supposed to happen, said Starkey, a 17-year-old with wavy black hair and wrists adorned with leather bracelets. “Teen suicides are surreal because we’re young and think we’re here forever.”

Today, Starkey helps lead the Idaho Falls magnet school’s “Sources of Strength” suicide-prevention campaign.

It’s one of several ways Idaho schools and leaders are beefing up awareness and training to combat some of the nation’s highest suicide rates.

Gov. Brad Little’s K-12 education task force recently elevated student social-emotional issues to the top of a working list of recommendations ahead of the 2020 legislative session. The 26-member group appears poised to float the use of professional development dollars and other resources to better serve students facing social and emotional challenges, including trauma and mental illness.

Other efforts are already underway. Earlier this year, the state carved up $45,600 in Sources of Strength grants for 19 Idaho schools, as part of the broader Idaho Lives Project.

School- and district-level efforts across East Idaho include:

  • Two student-led suicide prevention projects at Compass Academy.
  • Bonneville School District’s participation in Hope Squad, a program that helps teens identify and assist peers at heightened risk of suicide.
  • Training for Bonneville High School educators in “QPR,” a technique for using questions, persuasion and referrals to interrupt a potential crisis and direct suicidal individuals to proper care.
  • Student-led suicide prevention projects at Firth and South Fremont high schools and Taylorview Middle School.
  • A student-led anti-bullying campaign at Blackfoot High School.

The push is much needed, said Melaleuca Associate General Counsel Katherine Hart, a K-12 task force member.

Hart recently highlighted the problem for fellow task-force members by referencing teen suicides in the Idaho Falls area. A Taylorview Middle School student died by suicide late last school year. At least two local high schoolers died by suicide within a week this school year.

Idaho consistently records some of the nation’s highest suicide rates. In 2016, the Gem State ranked eighth overall, at 20.8 suicides per 100,000 people — 50 percent higher than the national average, according to 2018 Idaho Health and Welfare numbers.

Suicide was the second-leading cause of death for Idahoans ages 15-34 and for males up to age 44 that same year, the numbers show. Between 2013-2017, 110 Idaho school children, ages 6-18, died by suicide. Twenty-five of those deaths were among children age 14 or younger.

And teen suicides are increasing nationwide. The Washington Post recently reported that from 2007 to 2017, suicides among people ages 10 to 24 increased by 56 percent, from 6.8 deaths per 100,000 people to 10.6.

Despite the increase, suicide is still a rare phenomenon for a single school, Compass Academy counselor Sam Booth acknowledged. Yet its impacts can devastate entire schools and communities.

Booth believes Compass and some other local schools have identified a “silver bullet”: education.

Having students lead the charge is key, she said.

Compass’s robust Sources of Strength program encourages students spread awareness about prominent suicide risk factors and warning signs, from trauma and depression to substance abuse and aggressive behaviors. Throughout the school year, Starkey and a handful of other student leaders plan and promote school-wide activities around eight areas shown to combat the warning signs:

  • Mental health
  • Family support
  • Positive friends
  • Mentors
  • Healthy activities
  • Generosity
  • Spirituality
  • Medical access

October’s Sources of Strength activity: a gathering of students and their pets in the gymnasium to “chill and mingle” in a safe place.

“Animals are great for mental health,” Starkey said.

Successful activities don’t take much, Starkey added. He recalled a “highly successful” activity involving milk and cookies and blankets at the school’s common’s area a few years ago.

Sources of Strength isn’t the only way Compass addresses social and emotional challenges often linked to suicide. The school’s “More than a Stigma” campaign encourages students to combat lingering stigmas toward mental illness.

Students also use an anonymous reporting system to voice concerns. Booth said she received anonymous tips detailing a depressed student’s social media post and another one’s volatile home situation last week alone.

“Our kids have gotten good at reporting what they see,” she said.

The school’s campaigns are changing the way kids view mental health and suicide, Starkey said. “Times have changed. Some of these things used to be taboo. Not for us.”

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). 

Devin Bodkin

Devin Bodkin

Devin was formerly a senior reporter and editor for Idaho Education News and now works for INL in communications.

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