For district staff, the back-to-school theme is “promise” – a promise to tackle one looming problem.
Losing three students to suicide in the past three years, Cedar Springs is ramping up its efforts to prevent further tragedies.
At the all-staff kickoff at Cedar Springs High School on Aug. 30, Superintendent Laura VanDuyn called on the entire staff, community leaders, mental health organizations and students in attendance to join a coalition to fight against depression and prevent teenage suicide.
Services and initiatives Cedar Springs has implemented to assist staff and students with mental health issues:
“We have more work to do… to attack this problem and save our kids and our families and our staff and our coaches and all of us from absolute grief and sorrow,” VanDuyn said. “We know that at this point we are in crisis here in Cedar Springs.”
In addition to various services that have been added following recent tragedies, four new mental health counselors have been hired, and suicide prevention curriculum has been implemented for staff and student training.
“We know that mental health is something that largely goes un-talked about throughout our nation,” VanDuyn said.
At the assembly, students lost to suicide were honored with a ceremony, in which three sheriff’s department officials placed empty desks on the stage, adorned with a rose each.
VanDuyn called on the community to attend the film “Hope Bridge,” which will be shown in the high school auditorium Sept. 14 and followed by facilitation from the West Michigan Mental Health Foundation. She also encouraged participation in the “Out of the Darkness” walk in Grand Rapids on Sept. 18. The events fall within September’s Suicide Prevention Month.
Representing the “be nice.” Campaign, the West Michigan Mental Health Foundation’s Christy Buck followed VanDuyn on stage to say the key to resolving the crisis is education.
“Along with kids it is you, and it is a very big commitment that you will have to make, becoming educated about what suicide is,” she said.
Buck dispelled myths about suicide and outlined the symptoms of depression, the leading cause of suicide. In addition to school-related pressures, depression follows teens home, she explained.
“You are going to be talking about this with parents,” Buck said. “We’re good for eight hours a day when our students are here, but there is also a component where we have to get parents educated.”
Sharing the story of his brother’s suicide, “be nice.” organizer Jeff Elhart said the first step to recognizing symptoms of depression is noticing changes in behavior.
As for the grieving process, no one should blame themselves or the victim for suicide, he said.
“You can’t harbor any guilt, nor can you harbor any anger,” he said. “Unlike any other illness – unlike cancer, unlike a car accident.”
Elhart and his family joined “Be Nice.” following his brother’s death, which he said provides tools to help make the community safer.
“You have an opportunity to lead a wonderful community here in Cedar Springs, not only starting here in the school but with parents… all walks of life, to understand and learn the tool that there is life and there is hope,” he said.