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Littleton Public Schools is addressing the issue of student suicide after two students took their own lives at the beginning of the school year.
Panelists from a variety of mental healthcare entities spoke to parents, educators and community members during a forum at Mission Hills Church on Oct. 10 that also hosted booths from various mental health outreach groups.
Drawing in schools, parents and mental health care providers is an important step to solving the issue, LPS superintendent Brian Ewert said.
“Mental illness is as real as the common cold and influenza, and as life-threatening as cancer or heart disease,” Ewert said. “It's important we have an ongoing dialogue, not just right after a tragedy. If we don't we'll be asking why after the next funeral. ”
The gist of the meeting: there's more help out there than you might think, but addressing youth suicide is a group effort.
Anyone in crisis — or anyone helping someone in crisis — can call Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255, or text “TALK” to 38255 to be connected to trained crisis intervention counselors, said Doug Muir, the director of the Behavioral Health Service Line at Porter Adventist Hospital.
“This isn't just for someone who's suicidal,” Muir said. “This is for friends, parents, teachers and health care providers. There's no wrong call to this number. Even at 3 in the morning, you have support. They will listen if you want to share your story, and they will guide you through the crisis system and help you access different options and levels of care.”
People in crisis can also use AllHealth Network's crisis walk-in center at 6509 S. Santa Fe Drive, Muir said.
“You don't even have to bring the person in crisis with you,” Muir said.
The idea that avoiding the topic of suicide is better for kids is a myth, said Cindy Hodge, vice president of training for LivingWorks, a suicide intervention training group.
“They already know it's an option,” Hodges said. “It's in television and movies. They know it's something people do. Not talking about it leaves them alone with their thoughts.”
Parents shouldn't beat around the bush when talking to kids, Hodges said.
“Be open and direct,” Hodges said. “You have to ask if they're thinking about suicide, because they need to be able to answer that. It's never an easy question. Don't take it personally if they don't want to talk to you, but if you have the instinct that something's not right, you need to ask.”
LPS is working hard to make sure students have access to a variety of resources and programming to address mental illness, said Nate Thompson, LPS's director of Social, Emotional and Behavioral Services.
The district uses programming like SafeTalk, which educates students on suicide warning signs, and gives them tools to seek help, Thompson said. The district is also working with Sources of Strength, a group that seeks to reduce youth suicide by encouraging strength, resilience and mutual support.
Sources of Strength is especially useful because it's peer-led, said Scott Lomery, the group's deputy director.
“There are a lot of teen suicide prevention programs without any teens,” Lomery said. “We want their voices. They're crucial. When we talk about population level change, it has to be a culture change effort. How do we build resiliency and increase connectedness? How do we shift norms around help seeking so that asking for help is a sign of strength and courage? Seeking help for a friend isn't snitching, it's being a good friend. We'll all go through hard things. How do we create healthy individuals and communities?”
Faith organizations can have a role to play, said Shannon Popp, Mission Hills Church's high school pastor.
“We're trying to intentionally create smaller communities,” Popp said. “There's a difference between communication and connection. We're trying to put adults into the lives of students who come here so they can have conversations in a safe environment. We give consistency — when they come here, they can work with the same adults who are there for them.”
Talking to young people facing suicidal ideation can be daunting, said Amy Cardinal, whose son Ethan died by suicide last year.
“You're on one side of a ravine, and a child in crisis is on the other side,” Cardinal said. “You tell them to trust you, but they can't trust that. They feel all alone. You can see the ravine is small and shallow, but they see the Grand Canyon. We must come together as a community to end this tragic epidemic.”
Youth suicide touches everyone in the community, said Kim Makendrick, whose three children attend the same schools as the two students who recently died by suicide.
“I want the tools to help my kids if they go through crisis, or help my kids deal with it when their friends do,” Makendrick said. “I'm glad we're doing this, even though I'm sad this is where we're at.”
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