Preventing suicide, keeping kids well, starts with asking questions and having answers

“The conversation (on depression and suicide) is important to start,” said Jessica O’Muireadhaigh, director of mental health and counseling for APS. “I believe one of the reasons why people don’t reach out is because of a certain stigma attached to it. Starting a conversation and continuing to talk about it can help to break down that stigma.”

AURORA | Starting a conversation with kids about depression and suicide isn’t an easy task. But having those conversations, especially when dealing with kids in the K12 system, is one of the biggest factors in opening a door for people to get help.

Cherry Creek School District and Aurora Public Schools are not unique when it comes to the challenge of creating an open environment to talk about mental health issues. Statistics show that locally and nationally students are more likely not to talk with someone about depression and their thoughts of suicide.

“The conversation (on depression and suicide) is important to start,” said Jessica O’Muireadhaigh, director of mental health and counseling for APS. “I believe one of the reasons why people don’t reach out is because of a certain stigma attached to it. Starting a conversation and continuing to talk about it can help to break down that stigma.”

In Cherry Creek’s 2016 Climate Safety Wellness survey, similar to the state’s Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, more than half of middle and high school students who filled out the anonymous poll said they were likely to keep thoughts about suicide to themselves. Kids not reaching out for help is a finding that unfortunately reflects a societal problem with discussing the issue, said Ronald Lee, director of mental health services for Cherry Creek schools.

“It’s one of the hardest taboo subjects to break through on,” Lee said. “We have to change the conversation. We have to have more public conversations about suicide so we can see it as a complex health issue, as a community issue that we need to come together on. Not just with the school, but with parents, the community and stakeholders. So individuals can feel more encouraged by the changing culture to talk about suicide.”

State and Cherry Creek surveys also showed a significant spike in suicide risk assessments for students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Lee said the reason for the spike in assessments for middle school age students in part has to do with that developmental phase of a child’s life. The cerebral cortex and frontal lobe are still developing and more risky behavior is usually exhibited during that age period.

Cherry Creek and APS both have programs in place to train staff on how to recognize the warning signs of depression and suicide in students. When a child exhibits signs of depression or suicidal thoughts, or if a student goes to a teacher with concerns about a friend dealing with suicidal thoughts, both districts immediately bring in parents to the conversation and get the family connected with resource in the community. The districts also focus on the middle school years and have programming for students to start the dialogue on depression and suicide.

Breaking the barriers down that keep students seeking help with depression and suicide requires a concerted effort to normalize the issues to where discussing either is like taking about any other health issue, said Anne DePrince, a professor in the University of Denver’s Department of Psychology.

While every demographic deals with these issues, students in K12 who identify as LGBTQ report higher numbers than their peers when it comes to depression, suicidal thoughts and not feeling safe at school. In CCSD’s survey, LQBTQ students were twice as likely to report dealing with anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

Lee said it was important not only for schools to work to create an inclusive environment for students, but for teachers, coaches and other adults to be there to help provide support for students dealing with feeling isolated. The same survey found that LGBTQ students who had a chance to connect with an adult in a supportive relationship were much less likely to report dealing with issues of mental health than their peers.

While schools can work to create an inclusive environment within the walls of a school, students still have to deal with the outside world, which often can exacerbate feelings of being excluded because of their sexual identity, race, religion or other factors. But Omar Gudino, an assistant professor at DU’s Department of Psychology said while schools cannot shield students from external pressures, they can help to start to create a culture of inclusiveness that has the potential to change societal beliefs all together.

“The good news is that schools can be an ideal environment for creating this change,” Gudino said. “It is also important to note that schools already have influence over the school climate as it relates to academics, athletics, student conduct, ex cetera. So expanding this influence to ensure an inclusive climate with respect to race/ethnicity, sexual orientation or identity, and mental health is possible.”