September is National Suicide Prevention Month.
During the last decade, there’s been a disturbing trend in the number of youth suicides in the state and across the nation. The most recent numbers show suicide as the second leading cause of death in young people aged 10-24. Even more troubling is the fact that the suicide rate among Maine youth between the ages of 15-19 is nearly 20 percent higher than the national average. (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.)
“In the last decade, there has been a marked spike in the mental health needs of the people in our state,” said Atwood Principal Jennifer McGee. “This has inevitably had a profound impact on our schools and in our classrooms.”
As a state, Maine has seen new legislation in recent years mandating that all school personnel receive suicide training, and more recently requiring schools to implement formal suicide prevention protocol. As a district, RSU 18 is trying to go much further than that.
During the month of August, RSU 18 Central Office hosted two very important sessions of professional development training led by professionals from the Maine Chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI). The sessions focused on a five-step action plan designed to help staff assist youths ages 12-18 who are experiencing mental health or substance use challenges.
“One of the most important tools we have to help students thrive in school is having adults build positive, encouraging relationships with them,” said Superintendent Carl Gartley. “To do this, our staff needs to be trained to meet the needs of all students.”
The training provided tools to help respond to those in need. The staff was taught strategies to properly assess a situation, listen without judgment, offer appropriate information and reassurance, and encourage professional help, self-help, and other support strategies.
“It is an important training because early intervention is huge,” said MHS Assistant Principal Sam Dunbar. He added that the key was to approach each situation with empathy for the student’s situation.
“This is a topic that is very uncomfortable for many to talk about,” said MHS Principal Paula Callan. “It is not something that we can “fix” and it is human nature to want to fix things.” Callan was awarded Assistant Principal of the Year in 2015 in part for the work she did to increase suicide prevention in school following the tragic death by suicide of a Messalonskee senior in 2014.
She added that the stigma around suicide and mental illness is finally lifting and that these conversations, though still difficult, are crucial. “Everyone that comes in contact with students of all ages, Pre-K through college, should be having conversations about suicide: discussing what the signs are, how to help a person in need, how to support one another during a time of need, and, heaven forbid, how to cope with the loss of a student or adult that commits suicide.”
This training is just a small piece of the work that the district has been doing to further move toward caring for the whole child. RSU 18 has added more social workers across the district and has a nurse present in each building as of this fall. We also have two resource officers in our district who work closely with local and state police to keep our schools safe and provide educational programming on topics like online safety and bullying. We are also fortunate to have a staff dedicated to meeting students’ needs and several academic intervention programs to support students at all levels.
Strong connections between our schools and communities also help our students thrive. The presence of groups such as the Watch D.O.G.S, our various sports, music and theater boosters, and PTO groups at all schools give parents and community members the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of all the students in our district. It truly takes a village, and working together we can help every student in every school get the support they need.
For more information about NAMI go to https://www.namimaine.org/
If you are concerned about yourself or about someone else, call the Maine Crisis Hotline at 1-888-568-1112. If you are not in Maine, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255). Help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.