Bullying in schools, part 2: District programs seek to prevent suicides

Stock image, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Bullying may take many different forms, including harassment, hazing and cyberbullying, but one aspect they share is the negative and harmful consequences they produce.

In addition to poor attendance and decreased academic performance, bullying can cause feelings of helplessness, anxiety, anger and frustration. These negative feelings can persist well into adulthood, experts say. It’s not just the person being bullied, either, as bystanders and others involved can also suffer mental, physical and emotional damage. This is especially true when someone takes the drastic step of killing themselves.

Although not all suicides are a direct result of bullying, studies have shown it to be a contributing factor in many cases.

Read more: Bullying and suicide: The connection is not as simple as it may seem

A Nov. 30 report issued by the Utah Department of Health offers some sobering statistics:

  • Between 2011-2015, a total of 150 youth between the ages of 10-17 died by suicide in Utah. During that period, the state’s youth suicide rate jumped more than 141 percent, climbing from 4.6 to 11.1 per 100,000 population. In comparison, the national youth suicide rate went up 23.5 percent during that same time frame, the report indicates.
  • Approximately 19 percent of youth in Utah age 10-17 said they had considered or planned suicide at some time during the last year, with 8.6 percent reporting a suicide attempt.
  • The majority of youth suicides in Utah were aged 15-17 years (75.4 percent), male (77.4 percent) and non-Hispanic white (81.3 percent). More than a third (35.2 percent) of youth who died by suicide had a mental health diagnosis and nearly a third (31.0 percent) were depressed at the time of their death.

Earlier this week, the suicide of a 13-year-old girl in California made national headlines when her family went public saying she’d been bullied repeatedly at school for years. In Utah, a 13-year-old girl in Moab and a 16-year-old boy in Cedar City also died by suicide during the past year, with their respective families also citing incessant bullying as the reason. Such heartbreaking scenarios are all too common.

According to the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition: 

  • Suicide is the eighth leading cause of death for Utahns and the second leading cause for youth age 10-24. 
  • There is a suicide in Utah every 16 hours.
  • Utah ranks seventh in the nation for suicide deaths per capita.

Experts say there are three “ventions” that are key to stopping suicide: prevention, intervention and postvention. All are interconnected and involve reaching out to others who may be at risk.

Two of the most commonly used suicide prevention and intervention initiatives used in Utah school districts are Hope Squads and QPR.

Hope Squads, a peer-based program started by Hope4Utah in Provo School District in 2004, is now used by many school districts throughout the state. Both Iron and Washington county school districts now have implemented Hope Squads in all of their secondary schools. 

Read more: $15,000 grant aims to prevent youth suicide, schools develop Hope Squads

Hope Squad members are taught not to act as counselors, but instead to recognize signs of suicide contemplation and how to properly report them. They also reach out to befriend fellow students who may be at risk.

Steven Dunham, director of communications for Washington County School District, said district secondary school principals, teachers and Hope Squad members are also currently being trained in QPR, which stands for Question, Persuade and Refer.

“QPR is just as important in saving a life as CPR,” Dunham said. “We’re training people in CPR to save a life instantly. And now we’re training students in QPR so they can save a life for somebody that might be facing suicidal thoughts or questions in their life. The studies show that with suicide if you can get a student, a young adult, to talk about it for 10 minutes you reduce the chance of them actually acting upon those thoughts.”

“That’s the whole idea behind QPR — to get them talking about it, get some time to pass so they can calm down and realize that there’s many important things and they are cared about, they’re an important part of our community and our school system,” Dunham said.

Feelings of isolation and rejection also often lead to suicidal thoughts, said Kimberly Anderson, an advocate for suicide prevention and LGBT+ youth. She is a long-time Utah resident who is studying in California to become a marriage and family therapist.

“The main reason kids consider suicide is rejection from community,” Anderson said. “Becoming isolated from their support system and the impulsiveness that results from being alone drives many to consider self-harm. Support systems can include family, friends, school, religious community or online communities. Rejection from those who have previously included them puts teenagers and young adults in a very precarious position.”

The third “vention,” postvention, refers to positive support given in the aftermath of a suicide in order to prevent additional suicides from happening.

Molly McClish, of Moab, was working as a high school teacher when her 13-year-old daughter Lily took her own life in January. McClish has since devoted her time and attention to commemorating her daughter’s life via a website called Lily’s Hope for Kindness, which also has a corresponding Facebook page. Its stated mission is to prevent adolescent suicide by promoting kindness and acceptance, particularly toward LGBT youth.

The pain of losing her daughter “has been worse than you can imagine,” McClish told St. George News. “Trying to do something helps some. Be more kind and stand up for kindness for all.”

As a result of the alarming upward trend in suicides among Utah youth, the state health department enlisted help in the form of Epi-Aid, or short-term epidemiological assistance from the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC’s Epi-Aid team investigated and found common risk factors were mental health concerns, family relationship problems, bullying at school and electronic bullying, other forms of violence, substance use and psychological distress. They also found supportive family, community and peer environments were helpful in reducing suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.

The team made the following recommendations:

  • Increase access to evidence-based mental health care for youth.
  • Strengthen family relationships.
  • Promote social connectedness, coping and problem-solving skills.
  • Identify and provide support to at-risk youth.
  • Reduce access to weapons and other lethal means.
  • Make coordinated efforts in suicide prevention programs that address multiple factors simultaneously.

If someone you know is exhibiting warning signs and behaviors commonly associated with suicide, such as expressions of hopelessness and despair, drastic mood changes, talking about death or wanting to die, and substance abuse, take action immediately. Call 911 if an emergency or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and ask for help or a referral.

Dunham encouraged school students to reach out to their peers and engage in more positive social interactions.

“In sixth grade through 12th grade, we have Hope Squads in our schools and they are trying to be friends,” he said. “They are trying to make a difference. They don’t want anybody to feel alone or like they don’t belong. They do belong. There’s a place for everybody.”

Resources

  • The SafeUT Crisis Text and Tip Line is a statewide service that provides real-time crisis intervention to youth through texting and a confidential tip program. Information about the app and download links are on the University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute’s website. Its crisis line is 801-587-3000.
  • The Trevor Project is a leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth. Its confidential 24/7 lifeline number is 866-488-7386. Other helpful resources for LGBT+ youth and their families include GLSEN and the Family Acceptance Project.
  • Hope Squad website.
  • Information about the QPR program from the QPR Institute.
  • How to have a conversation with someone about suicide, as outlined on the federal Indian Health Service website.
  • Statistics and resources from the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition.

Email: jrichards@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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