Littleton Public Schools to be subject of youth suicide study

Researcher to investigate how to build culture of health and safety


Littleton Public Schools will form one-half of a long-term study into the relationship between social environments and youth suicide.

Dr. Anna Mueller, a professor of sociology from Indiana University, is leading the study, while her colleague Sarah Diefendorf is conducting a concurrent study in Mesa County on Colorado's Western Slope. Seth Abrutyn, an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, will assist bothe Mueller and Diefendorf. The study will be conducted over two school years, concluding in 2021.

The goal, Mueller said, is to learn how to build more connected schools and communities that impart a sense of belonging among youths.

“We're seeing concerning trends nationwide showing increasing rates of youth suicide and other youth mental health disorders,” Mueller said. “Rather than coming in with assumptions, this is trying to hear kids' voices themselves. What's it like to be a kid today? What are sources of stress and distress?”

The study, “Social Worlds and Youth Wellbeing Study,” will be conducted two ways, according to its website: Mueller and Diefendorf will observe “youth-centered community life in schools and other community locations,” and will also conduct interviews and focus groups with youths, school staff, parents and other community members.

Participants' names and identifying characteristics will not be used in the study, Mueller said, and schools will be given pseudonyms. No one under 18 will be interviewed without written permission from their parents or guardians, Mueller said.

Mueller has a lengthy background of studying youth suicide and youth culture, according to her website,, including dozens of articles, studies and awards.

Mueller said she found her way to Littleton after presenting to the board of the state's Office of Suicide Prevention, where professional connections led her to LPS. She said district officials were receptive to the idea of a long-term study.

Mueller is not being paid by LPS, said Nate Thompson, the district's director of social, emotional and behavioral services, though officials are glad she's here.

“We love the idea of having a sociologist give an outside perspective of the district and what life is like for our kids,” Thompson said. “We've got a relentless focus on how we can help kids be well, and this will give us some great feedback.”

It's important that Mueller be given space to operate independently, Thompson said.

“We want her to have complete free reign to be honest,” Thompson said.

LPS has dealt with its fair share of tragedy in recent years, Thompson said, including the 2013 shooting at Arapahoe High School that left student Claire Davis and her killer dead, and a spate of suicides, including two back-to-back at Arapahoe in fall 2018.

“Trauma compounds,” Thompson said. “We're dealing with the impacts of that. We're hoping for insights into what's unique about our community.”

LPS has taken a proactive approach to youth mental health, Thompson said, developing a variety of programs over the past several years. The district's mental health resource program connects families with a network of more than 200 mental health care providers, Thompson said, and the district's foundation will even pay for services for families in need.

Still, Thompson said, there's always room to do more.

“Any district that's taking itself seriously is never satisfied with dealing with mental health,” Thompson said. “Prevention is hard to measure. We don't know how many kids in crisis don't die by suicide.”

Mueller said she's been impressed so far with the district's offerings.

“All of the district's high schools are incredible,” Mueller said. “The district has put a lot of thought into mental health services and safety. The only downside is that if I find something that works here, it might be hard to recommend to other districts that can't muster those same resources.”

The study takes place against a backdrop of greater societal awareness of suicide, and amid what appear to be growing suicide rates, said Sarah Brummett, the director of the state's Office of Suicide Prevention.

The conversation around dealing with suicidality is expanding, Brummett said.

“Historically, suicide prevention has been tied to mental illness and mental health, but suicide is broader than that,” Brummett said. “There's lots more going on in a community and within families that can increase or decrease risk: isolation, family instability, food insecurity, or experiences of trauma.”

Social media is likely a contributing factor, Brummett said, though she said it's too simplistic to lay too much blame on it.

“It can also be a platform for young people to connect and get validation and help in non-traditional ways,” Brummett said. “But it can also reinforce inaccurate perceptions of social norms — kids can think `everyone's perfect but me.' And, people can be nasty online when they're anonymous.”

Some of Mueller's previous work has found other risk factors. At last year's Sources of Strength meeting — a community forum on youth mental health hosted by LPS — Mueller presented findings from a study she conducted in a city she identified by the pseudonym “Poplar Grove.”

After a spate of youth suicides, Mueller's research found youth cited extreme pressure to succeed in academics and athletics as stressors. The problem was exacerbated, Mueller found, by a stigma against mental health care and openly discussing trauma.

Bringing the issue of youth suicide into the open can be critical to addressing it, Mueller said.

“Kids want to talk about it,” Mueller said. “And I want to hear what they have to say.”


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