Finding Hope: Giving students a voice in suicide prevention 

  • Exeter High School guidance counselor Jaime Sawler and senior Liz Siegfried talk on the stairs between classes this school year. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Liz Siegfried, standing in the hallways of Exeter High School, recounts the difficulties she had when she arrived at the school two years ago. “I don’t want someone sitting in class, crying and thinking some of the things I was thinking.” GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Liz Siegfried has come a long way since he sophomore year at Exeter High School where she arrived as a transfer from North Carolina. Now as a senior, Siegfried has gained confidence as she looks to her future. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • —Monitor staff GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 10/21/2018 11:01:08 PM

Liz Siegfried remembers the assignment in her health class as a chance to make a quiet call for help.

She was a sophomore at Exeter High School and students were asked to write a letter broaching suicide from a teenage point of view. 

“I started it off by saying, ‘I’ve felt suicidal for a long time.’ But then I said that I have a little brother, and if it wasn’t for him, something would happen to me,” she said.

Two years ago, Siegfried still felt like the new kid in Exeter after moving up from North Carolina the year before. She isolate herself from friends and family, and felt overwhelmed by a heavy workload of AP and honors classes.

The health assignment was an eye-opener for her.

“It hit me, like, ‘I can’t do this. I just want to go home. I want to be with my friends and my family, everyone that I knew from my past,’ ” she said. “I realized just how bad I was feeling.”

Siegfried decided that she needed to put in the work to try to feel better. She joined every club she could think of and forced herself, in spite of her depression, to make connections with new friends.

Still, Siegfried said the suicide assignment bothered her.

“I totally expected that I was going to get a call from the teacher, being like, ‘Hey, what’s wrong?’ and I never got anything,” she said.

Even though Exeter had suicide education programs in place, Siegfried could have been an example of a student who may have otherwise slipped through the cracks.

Later that year, Siegfried found an opportunity to make sure other students didn’t have to suffer in silence as she did. She heard the school was implementing a program to train teachers and students how to identify warning signs of suicide.

Now a senior, and looking forward to college, Siegfried said it’s been one of the most formative experiences of her high school career. She said teaching others about how to look for signs of depression or emotional struggle has given her confidence and helped her heal.

Exeter High School now uses the nationally recognized NAMI NH Connect programming, which is required for new teachers starting in any of the district’s 10 schools. Notably, it’s presented to the staff by students like Siegfried.

Experts say that education about suicide is vital, but training teachers is equally important.

“If you’re going to train youth, you make sure all the adults are on board first, so you don’t train youth to turn to an adult that isn’t prepared,” said Elaine de Mello, Supervisor of Training and Prevention Services for the Connect Program.

Exeter High School Guidance Counselor Jaime Sawler said it’s been part of the district’s mission to prioritize suicide education and prevention. The motivation comes from experience: the high school has seen at least four student suicides since 2010.

“Unfortunately, we had a number of deaths over a period of time, and I think that led to a commitment to this,” Sawler said. “Now, we’re trying to engage our whole community in a conversation about mental health and how important it is. The more kids become aware of suicide, the more common that conversation becomes, the easier it is for kids to talk about it and receive help.”

No warning

New Hampshire schools are required by law to provide suicide prevention information to their students, but there is no system in place to monitor which schools are actually doing it and how. Schools are in charge of developing their own policies and paying to implement them.

Some of the schools with the most detailed prevention programs developed them in the wake of tragedy.

After the death of a student at its middle school in 2009, the Bow and Dunbarton School District used NAMI NH’s Connect training to educate close friends of the student who died. Some became youth leaders who went on to train other students to look for warning signs that a student might be at risk of suicide.

“In many cases, it takes a death for that to happen,” said Bow police Chief Margaret Lougee.

Within three weeks of the student’s death, administrators pulled every district employee – teachers, janitors, bus drivers – for mandated suicide prevention training, Lougee said.

They instituted a standard protocol among all schools in the district – three then, now four with Dunbarton Elementary – requiring teachers to go to the guidance department on the day they see warning signs that a child might be in danger.

The school knew there was a high risk for contagion, or repeat suicide deaths, and they made sure to be in contact with parents and the police. If a student was in crisis and needed to be brought to the emergency room, school counselors, the social worker and police resource officer accompanied children and families to Concord Hospital and waited with them until they received care.

They created an emergency response team for each school in the district to handle crises.

In Exeter, the district implemented a similar program, training student youth leaders like Siegfried to go into health classes during a week-long section on mental health and teach suicide prevention.

The district now uses Signs of Suicide (SOS) training into its middle school, paid for by the Connor’s Climb Foundation. Connor’s Climb was founded by Tara Ball, whose 14-year-old son, Connor, died by suicide while he was a student at Exeter High School in 2011.

SOS is an interactive video that teaches students how to look out for warning signs and how to identify a trusted adult to help when support is needed.

It also includes a non-diagnostic screening program for depression. Every student who goes through the program takes the survey, which asks questions about their energy level, self esteem and whether they’ve had thoughts of killing themselves. Those students who meet a certain threshold are set up to meet with a guidance counselor on the day of being screened.

Sawler said combining two approaches to suicide prevention education – CONNECT and SOS – gives students a well-rounded suicide prevention education.

The state does not fund any form of suicide prevention training in schools – even though doing so has been shown to decrease rates of suicide in states like Vermont and Massachusetts, studies show. New Hampshire is far above the national average in suicide deaths for ages 10 to 18.

Students speak up

At Exeter High, Siegfried said she thinks having students at the helm of suicide prevention programs makes a big difference.

“When I was in health class, we would get a general mental health presentation, and my eyes would glaze over, and I thought, ‘I want to just get a grade and get out of here, because none of this applies to my life.’ But when you see some of the people you know, you make them pay attention because you connect it to their lives,” she said.

Students are able to make that connection better than teachers sometimes.

“It’s easier to connect with a student, even though we may be older because we have experienced some of the same things: school stresses, work stresses, sports stresses,” Siegfried said. “We know how to deal with it.”

After reviewing warning signs, students trained in suicide prevention talk with their peers about finding people in their lives who they can connect with – coaches, teachers, friends and parents – if they are ever feeling depressed or considering suicide.

While most students are receptive to the information, Siegfried said the conversation can become too much for some students, many of whom have a personal experience with depression or suicide.

“In our community, it’s definitely something that’s hard to talk about, because we’ve had a lot of people who have died by suicide. In a lot of the health classes that I’ve had, people have just straight up gotten up and left, and just taken a break or couldn’t handle it,” she said. “Sometimes it just hits too close to home.”

The Connect program Siegfried has been a part of was in place in Exeter five to 10 years ago, around the time the school experienced three student deaths in three years, starting in 2010. It faded out until Sawler began as a guidance counselor at the high school, and he was asked to bring it back following the death of 17-year-old student during the 16-17 school year.

Siegfried, who hopes to go to the University of Vermont in the fall, was in the first group of about 15 students to go through the training during that school year.

Sawler said the training has been administered to about 100 new employees of the school district over the last two years – the district employs more than 1,000 people currently. Sawler said his goal over the next few years is to expand it – to not only new teachers, but all teachers and all staff – including paraprofessionals, cafeteria workers, janitors and bus drivers.

He said even though the program had lapsed in the past, the more recent student losses underscored the importance of investing in prevention.

“It’s a matter of someone taking it on and saying, ‘this is important to this community,’” he said. “I think there’s enough leaders in this district that know about the program – and see how important it is – to carry it.”

(Leah Willingham can be reached at 369-3322, lwillingham@cmonitor.com or on  Twitter @LeahMWillingham.)

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If you or someone you know might be at risk for suicide, contact The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.

For additional resources, visit NAMI New Hampshire's Connect Program at www.theconnectprogram.org.




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