High school can be a tough place. Just ask Mercer County seniors Corey Brown, Katrina Bryant, Sarah Jones and Cody Pike.
“The people we go to school with, they’re still harsh,” Bryant said.
That harshness can be a contributing factor to youth suicide, a persistent tragedy that is often so difficult to deal with, it is hushed up.
This is something that Melody Pike, coordinator of the Youth Services Center at Mercer County Senior High, and other educators around the state have been striving to change.
“When I first started this job 11 years ago, people in the community were asking me, ‘What are you going to do about the suicide rate?’” Pike said.
According to the CDC, suicide is the third leading cause of death for 11- to 24-year olds nationwide and the second leading cause for 15- to 24-year olds in of Kentucky. These figures are what concerns educators.
Pike began doing research and discovered that Mercer County had a higher rate than those surrounding it. She began trying to find a way to reverse this.
In 2010, legislation was passed in Kentucky that mandated the dissemination of suicide information to teachers and students. Middle and high school teachers are required to do at least two hours of self-taught study before passing the information to their students. It must be given to the students before Sept. 1. of each school year.
Boyle County, Danville and Mercer County schools all use slightly different programs to increase awareness of suicide and ways to prevent it.
Boyle County varies its curriculum each year. This is to make sure students aren’t getting the same program every year, according to Pam Tamme, Boyle County District Counselor. This year, they will be implementing a video program, “More Than Sad: Teen Depression.”
Following the student sessions in Boyle County, every student is given a short questionnaire, which gives them an opportunity to ask for help.
“Some students are concerned about a family member or friends while some want support for themselves,” Tamme said.
Danville schools focus on working together and crafting a program suited for them.
Teachers at Bate Middle and Danville High schools are required to view a two-hour Powerpoint with videos and testimonials available from the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide and take a follow-up test. They then meet together as a group to discuss the videos.
“We’re not mental health professionals. We’re not equipped to deal with all of these things. But what we are equipped to do is to learn the signs, identify the at-risk students and refer them to the appropriate resources,” Amy Galloway, principal at Bate Middle School, said.
Danville has also created a Student Assistance Team, or SAT. All teachers are given referral forms to fill out when they believe a student needs assistance of some kind. This team also helps those who are in need of food, clothing or other types of help.
“We don’t want to ever just meet the requirement. We really want to go above and beyond, and that’s the purpose of the SAT,” said Kristi Short, director of The Beacon Youth Services Center.
The center also offers home visits, if needed. This includes getting the information out to parents.
In 2009, Mercer instituted suicide prevention programs in the schools. Mercer uses Signs of Suicide for the students. SOS is a research-based program that has shown to reduce suicidal ideation by 40 percent.
The SOS program includes a Booster program for seniors, giving them the tools to seek help in the world outside of high school. It also utilizes a component called ACT: Acknowledge, care and tell. The acknowledgement is an essential first step.
“Just being acknowledged is a good thing. That’s an emotional pick-me-up as it is. To have somebody else acknowledge the fact that you’re feeling down; that makes you more prone to talk to them,” said Cody Pike, Melody’s cousin.
Melody Pike has encouraged the teachers to stand out in the hall and talk to every student, showing students teachers care.
“That kind of support and care from the administration and also other students that see you in the hallway, it helps, so you know you have people to talk to and people to help get you through your problems,” Brown said.
Even with best efforts, some students don’t take it seriously. “They joke about it,” said Jones.
Cody Pike thinks that comes from a lack of believing there is a problem. “You see it on the videos, but you don’t think about it going around the halls in our school. I think we’re all too naive to see what’s going on,” he said.
Brown believes that’s due in part to a lack of maturity. “When you’re younger, and even sometimes when you’re going through high school, people don’t tell you about suicide,” he said.
That’s a universal problem, Melody Pike explains, as suicide has historically been a taboo topic.
“We need to talk about it. It’s not comfortable, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to go away,” she said. Pike explains there are individuals who believe if you talk about suicide, it will push someone to try it. “That’s just not true,” she said.
Tamme agrees with this opinion. “We need to teach our students the importance of getting friends help when they are depressed or suicidal. This is not a time to keep secrets or promise not to tell,” she said.
Feelings of hopelessness are often at the root of suicidal thoughts, according to Melody Pike, “ ... and we want to change that.”
“I want everybody to understand that depression is an illness; it’s not something to be ashamed of. Anybody can find themselves depressed,” she said.
A 2011 Kentucky Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed 14.8 percent of high school students surveyed admitted to having seriously considered attempting suicide, and 13.7 percent had created a plan. Additionally, 10.9 percent of students had attempted suicide.
The number extends to middle schoolers, as well, as 11.5 percent admitted to having made a plan and 7.1 percent of students made a suicide attempt.
“Kids are hurting and we want to be there,” Short said.
According to Galloway and Short, the role of the parents is a crucial one. Information is available on a variety of subjects, but especially on suicide, for any community member trying to learn more. They have a DVD, titled “Not My Kid” from the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, available.
Sometimes people forget that not every student is experiencing the same problems or has the same reactions to problems.
“This program will help open up minds and let you see that, even if you aren’t going through hard times, there could be other people that are and you could help them out,” Brown said.