Ogden, Weber School Districts ramp up suicide prevention efforts

Monday , December 18, 2017 - 6:58 AM1 comment

CATHY MCKITRICK, Standard-Examiner Staff

OGDEN — Honest and informed talk about suicide could help save lives, but having those discussions with troubled youth has been taboo in the past.

Huntsville resident Laura Warburton referred to suicide as a “silent killer” in a recent Facebook post. After her daughter took her own life in 2014, Warburton’s journey through intense grief and introspection ultimately led her to launch a nonprofit called “Live Hannah’s Hope — Empowering Youth.”

“In other words, people are suffering alone,” Warburton said. “The only true way to save a life is to encourage open discussion of our feelings and thoughts. It has to start there. Period. When we believe the myth that talking about suicide causes suicide, we perpetuate the loneliness that actually is the very base for suicide.”

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Gina Butters, Student Services director for the Weber School District, is devoted to debunking the idea that talking about suicide only increases its likelihood.

“Research is telling us the opposite now, to make sure that we do talk about it openly, honestly and carefully — and provide factual information,” Butters said. Their former focus had been to be hush-hush about suicide and not even mention the word, but “now we do and we call it what it is.”

This is just one of several efforts to boost support systems for students in both the Weber and Ogden School Districts. A recent investigation into Utah’s alarming spike in youth suicides, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shed light on the need to do more in terms of prevention. From 2011 to 2015, suicides among Utah youth ages 10 to 17 increased 141.3 percent. 

RELATED: Better data, more inclusive culture could help reduce youth suicides in Utah

Every secondary school in both the Weber and Ogden School Districts now have Hope Squads, based on a model initiated by Hope 4 Utah, an organization based in Utah County.

“As we have seen the success in our secondary schools, we have also seen a growing need to support our older elementary school students,” Ogden School District spokesman Jer Bates said by email. “As a result, this year we are starting to expand our program with Jr. HOPE Squads in the elementary schools.”

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Those younger Hope Squads focus on building resilience and healthy life skills, Bates said, using developmentally appropriate information regarding suicide.

In 2018, the Weber district also plans to launch Hope Squads in two of its four elementary schools.

“What we’re finding is that if you have a core group of trained kids that are immersed in suicide prevention curriculum, they can be your best eyes and ears in the school to identify kids who are struggling and then know what to do to get them to the right resources,” Butters said.

The recent loss of a Rocky Mountain Jr. High science teacher to suicide posed the urgent need to not only provide solace but also help explain the pain. 

RELATED: Teacher's death plunges junior high school into shock and grief

“We had a lot of kids and staff members coming in saying ‘I should have known; I should have seen the signs,’” Butters said. That opened the door to talk about the different stages of grief and age-appropriate coping skills.

The Weber School District also hired Mental Health Specialist Zachary Leifson to help with wraparound supports for students who struggle with depression, anxiety, self-harm or inappropriately aggressive behavior that can indicate a cry for help.

“He’s been wonderful, but there’s one of him and about 32,000 kids,” Butters said.

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The Ogden District also fully implemented the SafeUT program, a mobile phone app that gives students immediate access via text, chat or phone to mental health experts at the University of Utah.

“This powerful resource provides a way for students to reach out and ask for help for themselves or for a friend,” Bates said. “All of our school administrators and counselors are connected to this resources and are able to address problems if needed. This has been a powerful tool that allowed us to receive information and get students the support and help they need.”

Harsh lessons

The CDC investigation raised concerns about mental health, social media use, teen access to firearms and the added struggles that LGBTQ youth face.

In the Ogden District, a Gay Straight Alliance club received state Board of Education approval to form at one of its junior high schools last year, Bates said. No patterns of bullying or suicidal concerns connected to gender identity or sexual orientation had been reported in their schools.

RELATED: Saving a few young lives isn't enough. We need to save all of them

“Each year, school counselors receive training on how to support LGBTQ students,” Bates said. “As a district, our counselors recognize the need to address the varying emotional needs and concerns that may arise, and seek to provide a safe place for every student in our buildings to find tolerance and acceptance.”

According to Butters, the Weber District has no Gay Straight Alliance clubs because all school clubs must be curriculum-based, but support groups have formed in some Weber schools where LGBTQ students can feel safe. However, there is no way to definitively track LGBTQ youth and outcomes because “LGBTQ is not a check box — we don’t identify those students.”

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The Weber District also created an Equity, Justice and Inclusion steering committee that will hold its first meeting in January. 

“The idea behind that committee is to try to continue to bring practices and strategies into our schools that will foster more of an inclusive environment for all because we know that’s related to reducing suicide risk,” Butters said.

RELATED: Mental illness resources in Utah 

Of the 150 Utah youth who died by suicide from 2011 to 2015, 78 percent were males and they primarily used firearms or suffocation. When students express suicidal thoughts, Butters said they proactively bring parents into the loop along with their mental health specialists and school counselors. 

“We make sure parents understand our concern and that a child’s access to firearms is reduced immediately. Boys tend to choose more violent means, and that increases the likelihood of completion,” Butters said. “It’s a difficult dance, and we try to make sure parents understand that connection and how to keep kids safe.”

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or cmckitrick@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @catmck.

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