Recent Tragedies Heighten Schools’ Concerns About Mental Health

Reducing Stigma Major Focus of Educational Efforts

The theater was quiet except for the rustling of popcorn bags. When the movie ended, the silence was louder.

That silence was what the movie was about: not talking about mental illness because of its stigma, not hearing the sounds of those thinking of killing themselves, and not asking the big question: Are you considering suicide?

The showing of the movie, “Hope Bridge,” at Celebration Cinema South on Sept. 17 was followed by a panel discussion about teen suicide and its warning signs. Tragically, the event could not have been more timely.

Four middle- and high-school students in Kent ISD schools have taken their own lives since July, three of them shortly before school began. According to the Kent County Health Department, as of early September five county residents age 19 or younger had completed suicides this year, not including two of the Kent ISD students who did not live in Kent County. There were six suicides in that age group in all of 2014.

‘Mental health is an urgent need.’ — Abby Wiseman, Kenowa Hills Middle School

Tragedies like these, and increased reports of student anxiety and depression, have prompted educators to more urgently address mental health issues in area schools. Though many schools already have preventive programs in place, educators say factors like pervasive social media, cyberbullying and academic pressure are taking a heavy toll on today’s students.

This year, School News Network will be looking at the subject through a series of stories about student mental illness, its symptoms and causes — and, most importantly, how to start talking about it.

Christy Buck, executive director of the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan, refers to the movement to spread the word about mental health as the new “stop, drop and roll” saying for schools.

She says a huge obstacle for dealing with mental health and suicide issues is people not wanting to talk about it.

“We know 80 percent don’t get help because of the stigma,” Buck says. “They don’t want to admit to feeling this way.”

‘We Can Never Do Too Much’

In the four Kent ISD districts where students have died by suicide since summer, staff and fellow students have been forced to confront ongoing concerns about students’ mental well-being in a more personal way.

A Rockford middle school student took his own life a few days before school started, Superintendent Michael Shibler confirmed. A crisis intervention team came to help students deal with the tragedy, which Shibler said highlights the need for adults or students to call 911 if they suspect someone is suicidal.

Christy Buck, shown here with a “Be Nice” campaign T-shirt, says social stigma stops many students from getting help
Christy Buck, shown here with a “Be Nice” campaign T-shirt, says social stigma stops many students from getting help

Rockford Public Schools already has several mental-health programs in place, including the DARE drug-education program and a peer listening student group in high school. It is also implementing in all of its buildings the state’s OK2SAY program, empowering students to confidentially report threats, bullying or other unsafe behavior.

“Suicide is never, ever the answer,” OK2SAY presenter Chris Coady told North Rockford Middle School students Thursday. “There are people out there who care about you and want to help. Please reach out to them.”

The district’s fourth annual “Developing Healthy Kids” community education series also focuses on mental health. On Oct. 21, comedian Kevin Breel will talk about his battle with depression in a public program, “Confessions of a Depressed Comic,”at 6:30 p.m. at the Rockford High School Auditorium. And as part of World Suicide Prevention Day on Sept. 10, the school district and Rockford HOPE sent a flyer listing suicide signs and resources to all Rockford Public Schools staff and parents.

Despite such efforts, the recent suicide highlights the need for greater vigilance, Shibler said. “We can never do too much when it comes to trying to build awareness and to get students help when it’s needed.”

Unlike physical illnesses such as heart disease, he added, a stigma still attaches to problems in the brain: “We look at mental illness as something we don’t understand, something many times beyond acceptance.”

Numbers Tell a Sad Story

  • More than two million children suffer from depression in the United States and more than half of them go untreated.
  • In a 2011 Michigan Public Health survey, over 30 percent of students reported they had felt so sad or hopeless over a two-week period that they stopped doing usual activities. A Kent County report the same year found students who received D’s and F’s were much more likely to have felt sad or hopeless every day for two weeks.
  • Among U.S. high school students during 2013, 16 percent of them reported they had seriously considered suicide, and 8 percent said they had attempted it one or more times.
  • Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 24, resulting in approximately 4,600 lives lost each year. About 80 percent of youth suicides are boys.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; National Center for Health Statistics; U.S. Center for Mental Health Services; Kent County Health Department

Where to Get Help

Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (hotline: 1-800-273-8255)

Network 180

How to Provide Help

If you suspect someone may be suicidal:

  • Tell the person you are concerned about him or her, and specifically what they have said or done that makes you concerned about suicide
  • Ask if the person is considering suicide, and whether he or she has a particular plan or method in mind
  • Ask if they are seeing a clinician or are taking medication so the treating person can be contacted
  • Do not try to argue them out of suicide, but let them know you care, that they are not alone and that help is available
  • If they are considering suicide, call 911 or take them to the nearest emergency room

Source: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Reaching Out to Grieving Students

At Kenowa Hills Middle School, a crisis response team offered counseling to classmates and teammates of a student who died of suicide in July. They also personally contacted friends who staff members thought might be in special need of help. Many had received counseling from private therapists, said school counselor Linda Saum.

‘They don’t want to admit to feeling this way.’
Christy Buck, Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan

Saum said the district has had only one other student suicide in her 17 years working there. Having four within Kent ISD schools over two months is very rare, she and Principal Abby Wiseman agreed.

“I hope it’s not a trend,” Saum said. “Up until this point, it’s not.” However, she added, mental health in general is a “huge concern” for all ages.

At the middle-school level, it’s complicated by students trying to fit in, changes in their minds and bodies and, increasingly, the prevalence of social media in their lives. Snapchat messages and Instagram photos provide students with new ways of being mean — and unlike a mean remark in class, online insults follow you home.

“You re-read that awful statement over and over again, as opposed to it was said to you once at school and you move on,” Wiseman said. “I don’t think you can as easily get over some of those things that have been said.”

“Mental health is an urgent need,” Wiseman stressed. “Whether they’re a threat to themselves or to someone else, it’s an urgency in our country right now.” She said the school aims to bring awareness to the issue “in a healthy way.”

“We have some things planned throughout the year to help students,” she added, in regard to the recent suicide, “to not ignore it, to acknowledge that this happened, and that they need to speak up if they know somebody’s having a problem.”

Spreading Awareness After Family Tragedy

The showing of “Hope Bridge” at Celebration Cinema South was a dramatic way of encouraging people to speak up when they suspect someone is feeling suicidal.

The movie is about a son’s search to understand why his father took his own life, and the son’s attempt to do the same. The film shows people what to look for when loved ones suffer from depression and suicidal thoughts. It also offers help to those who are struggling with why it happened.

‘We look at mental illness as something
we don’t understand.’

— Michael Shibler, Rockford Public Schools

Jeff Elhart and his family, business owners from Holland, sought a way to educate schools and communities about mental health after suicide affected them personally. The Elhart family lost Jeff’s brother, Wayne, retired owner of Elhart Automotive Campus, to suicide in March.

When they learned about “Hope Bridge” and its message, they wanted to find ways to show it to schools and communities. The family has been helping fund the showing of the movie in West Michigan and other states. More free showings are being planned.

“We want to show the movie wherever a group wants to see it,” Jeff Elhart said. “Mental illness conditions are treatable, and suicide is preventable.”

The Elharts are working with The MentalHealth Foundation of West Michigan and the producers of the film, Christi and David Eaton of Loveland, Ohio. The movie, released in May, stars Booboo Stewart of “The Twilight Saga” film series and “X-Men: Days of Future Past”; Kevin Sorbo, star of “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys”; and Rebeca Robles. (If you are interested in showing it at your school or community, contact Christy Buck at the Mental Health Foundation, 616-389-8601.)

After the recent showing of “Hope Bridge” ended, few people got up to leave the theater right away. Most didn’t even turn to talk to the person next to them to discuss what they thought of the movie. Buck hopes what they saw, though, will help break the silence.

“Seeing the movie is a step in moving forward,” she said.

-Paul R. Kopenkoskey contributed research to this article

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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