District 51 ramps up suicide-risk response


School District 51 handled double the number of suicide risk assessments for students in the past school year compared to recent years, but officials don't see that as a negative sign.

On the contrary, helping more students who are at-risk for suicide means more kids are coming forward and making it possible for trained professionals to help, said Karin Vermeulen, a school psychologist and the district's crisis psychological support team coordinator.

The district conducted 529 suicide risk assessments in the past school year, with the biggest portion of those assessments happening for middle school students (222), who also had the highest number of students categorized as "high risk." However, 117 elementary-aged students and 190 high-schoolers were also assessed. Overall, the district experienced a 112 percent increase in referrals compared to the previous school year.

The district is responding to this increased need by hiring three new grant-funded positions to be in place when school starts — a suicide prevention intervention specialist, a mental health and crisis coordinator and an additional trauma coach to add to the district's three-person team of K-12 trauma coaches.

Another change for next year is the modification of strengths-based problem-solving curriculum to start teaching students coping strategies in third grade. The curriculum, called Riding the Waves, previously started in fifth grade and has been taught by school counselors for at least the past four years, according to the district. Another program, called Sources of Strength, has been used in at least seven middle and high schools for the past four years as a club-based activity with peer leaders who organize positive, school-wide activities that help build community.

Both of these programs are not specific to suicide prevention, said Vermeulen, but the skills learned in them can be used as coping mechanisms.

"It could be suicide, substance abuse, bullying, anything," she said. "We talk about when things get tough, what do you do, what are your internal and external resources you can use, people you trust?"

Another program called Signs of Suicide was being taught originally only in seventh grade, and includes specific suicide-intervention strategies. That program expanded to include instruction in ninth grade about four years ago and will start being offered to students as young as sixth grade with recent policy changes.

New district policy adopted by the board last week states that all students from third through 12th grade will have strengths-based training to teach resiliency and coping skills, and all students from sixth grade to 12th grade will have suicide intervention training.

In third grade, the lessons are more student-centered, and ask kids to come up with challenging times that have happened to them.

"Sometimes it's divorce, sometimes it's a friend moving away," Vermeulen said. "There are things in their world that can be very upsetting, like getting a bad grade, or it could be getting in trouble at school or wrecking their bike and now they don't have one."

Younger students have conversations about who they can go to or what they can do in these times that are tough. Vermeulen said they talk about who they can trust, the people who can help them work through these problems.

"What are the things in your world that help you feel better?" she said. For younger kids, it can be coloring, listening to music or going to the park among other things.

For older students, the curriculum talks more about unhealthy behaviors and cautionary tales about why it's not a good idea to engage in them, like risky behavior, self-harm or substance abuse.

The curriculum is modified to be age-appropriate at each grade, and trainers don't bring up the word "suicide" unless the students take the conversation in that direction and mention the word themselves, she said. But many times students have been exposed to suicide already and that happens, she said.

Last year, the district was notified that 10 parents died by suicide, Vermeulen said, directly connecting students, their friends and families to this loss.

When families of students experience a loss due to suicide, it heightens the risk because someone has modeled that choice as a coping strategy.

"It has been a rough year in trying to get kids to understand that that's not the best choice," she said.

Crisis team members are trained to help students cope with losses including but not limited to suicide.

All together, the district had 12 student deaths in 2016-2017, including losses due to suicide, cancer, shooting, drowning and car accidents, Vermeulen said.

All students who received a risk assessment had something going on in their lives that warranted that referral, she said. Maybe it was comments they made about contemplating suicide, knowing someone else who died recently or having a family member with a history of mental illness or issues with substance abuse, among other factors.

When a student is categorized as "high risk," that means there were sufficient risk factors or warning signs that warranted a follow-up with mental-health professionals to determine whether hospitalization was required.

Overall, Vermeulen sees the increase of risk assessments as a sign that people are getting help, not that things are getting worse.

"Those are kids we saved, that we were able to get help to," she said. "People are coming forward and telling us that they're struggling and we're able to get them help, and I see that as a positive."