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Schools seek to reduce youth suicide

The Truth - 8/19/2018

Aug. 19--With school back in session, counselors and educators are watching for students who may be considering suicide, saying such thoughts and behaviors can be reduced with proper mental health support and treatment.

In Indiana, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 15-24 and fifth leading for ages 5-14, according to a report by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The report shows that one in five Indiana high school students seriously consider suicide over the course of a year.

Mental health officials and counselors fear that suicidal thoughts and attempts may be more likely during the school year when pressure to do well in class, extracurricular activities and social life can take stress and anxiety to higher levels.

"For some kids it creates more anxiety when they are back at school, but I think the opposite is true, too," said Tony England, assistant superintendent of student services at Elkhart Community Schools. "For some students it creates relief."

England said school staff is on the lookout for youths who seem more anxious, more angry or exclude themselves from social settings. Schools advise parents to be aware of other indicators such as changes in sleep or appetite.

A new state law implemented this school year requires schools that teach any grades between fifth and 12th to ensure teachers receive training in youth suicide awareness and prevention once every three years.

Elkhart Community already trains mental health first aid to every staff member in its secondary schools every other year.

"It kind of takes the model of first aid," said Todd Kelly, who is the school corporation's bullying prevention coordinator. "If you come upon a situation, you're not the expert. If somebody is having a heart attack, you are not the one deciding what kind of surgery they should have, but you need some basic skills, understanding what some of the significant things with mental health are. What are the high risks, support systems that are available, the coping mechanisms that are healthy and not healthy."

If a student may be contemplating suicide, a social worker employed by the schools makes an assessment and advises student services, which recommends what further action should be taken. That may include helping the student to the ER, a mental health facility or following up with parents, said Natalie Bickel who supervises the school's social workers on mental health.

Nearly every Elkhart Community school has a social worker. The schools work with the mental health treatment provider Oaklawn, which has three full-time employees dedicated to the schools.

"And those folks are good contacts when we are going through these assessments and we see somebody who might need some additional services," England said. "They will help with the family and then get the kid services."

But it's not all about what staff and specialists can do.

Students also take part in creating a place of well-being for each other, some through the student-led Move 2 Stand initiative, which empowers students to raise awareness of bullying and mistreatment. Organizers also bring together 100 students from each high school for what Kelly describes as summit days.

"And we just talk about what's going on with bullying and different things to bring things out, and then talk about different healthy ways of dealing with things. The kids have a lot of fun and talk about what's working and what coping skills are appropriate," he said.

Every second year the schools invite John Halligan, the father of Ryan Halligan who died by suicide in 2013 at age 13, to speak to their middle school students. Ryan Halligan was a victim of threats and harassment from bullies who claimed he was homosexual.

Minority members, particularly high school students identifying as gay, lesbian or bisexual, are many times more likely to consider or attempt suicide than others, according to the CDC. Students of color are also more likely than white students to consider or attempt suicide.

"One of the things we do is target our social workers so that they understand that information, and they do," England said. "I think with any students of color, understanding that the social pressures that are on the students in different populations is a big deal. So we have put together some training several years ago and continue to move forward with Dr. Anita Rowe out of California in identifying what differences are in any particular groups."

Nineteen people 24 or younger died from suicide in Elkhart County from 2014 to 2016, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.

No matter the cause of death of a student, Elkhart Community always brings in help from Goshen-based Ryan's Place, which specializes in helping grieving children.

"They are our first call any time we lose a student because our students and our staff are reeling and need help, and Ryan's place is there pretty quickly to come and assist us, work with our staff, work with our students," England said. "And that's a time when our social workers are also going, 'OK, if we've lost a student, who do we know is going to be impacted and how do we pull that particular person in?'"

"We always find students we hadn't anticipated, and Ryan's Place is really good at providing the extra support we need," he said.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicidal thoughts and behaviors can be reduced with the proper mental health support and treatment, and are not the result of weaknesses or flaws.


For help in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. Other resources include or call Ryan's Place at 574-535-1000. Students and adults can anonymously alert their school that bullying is occurring or that somebody is struggling at


(c)2018 The Elkhart Truth (Elkhart, Ind).

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