Editor’s note: This is the third and final article in a series focusing on the issue of teen suicide.
Out of all the statistics BJ Thomas has learned during the past year since her 16-year-old daughter, Regan, took her own life, one seems to stick in her mind.
On average, the time between when a teen thinks about killing themselves to the time when they actually commit suicide is only 20 minutes.
At first, that was hard for BJ to understand, but she’s come to learn that the teenage brain is wired differently than the adult brain. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that handles rational thought, is the last to develop and doesn’t fully mature until around age 25.
“Quite simply, our young people make choices based on emotion rather than logic, and they do so impulsively,” BJ said.
That conclusion was echoed by Leslie Bjork, director of the Elizabeth Layton Center, Miami County’s primary mental health facility.
“They are more impulsive, and they have a very different sense of time,” Bjork said of teenagers. “They are more inclined to think their current situation is the way things will always be.”
BJ can’t help but wonder what Regan was thinking in her final moments. She even reached out to Regan’s classmates, asking them what they would have said if they could have talked to Regan in those last 20 minutes.
“The responses were gut-wrenching,” BJ said. “Those kids would have done anything to keep her alive. They were just never given the opportunity.”
BJ is now on a mission to make sure that never happens again, and she realizes that in order to accomplish her goal, she needs help from local school districts.
As it turns out, all of the school districts in Miami County address the issue of student mental health and suicide prevention in some capacity, but the policies and strategies differ, and some are in the process of changing.
Spring Hill USD 230 is one of six Johnson County school districts that joined forces earlier this year to form a coalition to address the growing number of teen deaths by suicide.
The effort was created after 15 Johnson County students committed suicide in the past year, causing teen suicides in the county to nearly double in the first six months of 2018, according to Johnson County Mental Health.
“These deaths weigh heavy on our hearts,” Blue Valley Superintendent Todd White said during the announcement of the new collaborative effort. “It is unacceptable for our children to think that the very best way to improve their life is to end it.”
The issue is a personal one for Spring Hill Superintendent Wayne Burke, whose son was a classmate of the two Spring Hill students who committed suicide in the past four years.
He’s helped oversee several new initiatives, including suicide intervention and prevention training for staff members and character education curriculum. He, along with the other superintendents, also helped establish a teen council and #zeroreasonswhy social media campaign that has gotten students involved in the suicide prevention effort.
The school district is also reaching out to the community. Recently, the district hosted a town hall-style meeting in which parents and other community members were invited to discuss teen suicide and brainstorm possible solutions.
Burke said it’s all about changing the stigma of suicide by talking about it and encouraging others to join the conversation.
“If we hide it, we’re going to keep losing people,” Burke said. “Let’s talk about it.”
The Jason Flatt Act, which Kansas Legislature passed in 2016, requires school district personnel across the state to receive at least one hour of suicide prevention training each year.
“To me, that’s a minimum,” said Louisburg Superintendent Brian Biermann, who recently had his district staff go through an all-day, 8-hour training class focused on suicide prevention.
Biermann said he wants the Louisburg school district to be proactive and focus on preventative measures when it comes to the topic of student suicide.
The school district has social-emotional learning programs established at every level, including the Second Step program at the elementary schools, the Lions Quest program provided by Louisburg Lions Club at the middle school and The Harbor provided by Jostens at the high school.
More programs also could be on the way. Biermann said he’d like to implement a student mentoring program, and there is a strong possibility the district will implement the TeamMates program created by former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne.
Biermann also is putting an emphasis on staffing. The district recently hired another social worker to go from two to three, and the plan is to make another hire so there could be a social worker assigned to each of the district’s four schools, he said.
Assistant Superintendent Justin Burchett said Osawatomie focuses on prevention. The high school uses School Connect as the primary curriculum source for its character education program.
School Connect has 80 lessons divided among four strands: creating a supportive learning community, developing self-awareness and self-management, building relationships and resolving conflicts, and preparing for college and the workforce, Burchett said in an email. The district targets specific lessons for the most age appropriate grade and also plans lessons for specific times in the school year, Burchett said.
Patty Henness, Career and Technical Education coordinator, prepares lesson materials for the staff and then distributes the materials to the staff prior to lessons, Burchett said.
“Each staff member has 12 to 15 advisory students, from the same grade, that they see on Tuesday and Thursday for 30 minutes,” Burchett said. “We incorporate the character lessons on Tuesdays, along with our career exploration lessons.”
The district uses a series of screening methods to identify students who may be in need of additional support, either academically or behaviorally. Beginning next semester, advisory teachers will hold Students of Concern meetings, Burchett said.
“Each grade level will meet once a month and brainstorm how best to help students identified by our screeners,” he said. “We update our screeners each six weeks to assess if additional students should qualify for assistance.”
Superintendent Gary French said the district also has a crisis management plan and is a member of the Greenbush Crisis Response Consortium, which provides direct assistance with trained intervention personnel.
According to The Jason Foundation, almost one out of every seven young people have not only thought about taking their own life but have actually made a plan to attempt suicide in the past 12 months.
Paola Superintendent Matt Meek said that’s an alarming statistic that he wants his staff to think about as they go through suicide prevention training each year.
Meek said teens have it much harder now than when he was in school, and he attributes a large part of that to social media and added societal pressures.
“The stresses of everyday life are so much more now with technology,” Meek said. “In my day, if you had a bad day, you could go home and escape it. But there is no escape for these kids.”
Meek said the school district is working to help kids by putting an emphasis on character education, social-emotional learning and establishing relationships.
Sunflower Elementary social worker Lisa Wilson said the school also received a grant this year to implement the 7 Mindsets program, which will add to the social-emotional learning curriculum.
The program includes a variety of components, such as having character education sessions led by Wilson in every classroom each week and having Panther Family sessions each week in which small groups of 8-12 students meet with a faculty leader to discuss topics focused on conflict resolution, digital citizenship, building relationships and learning the 7 Mindsets.
Social worker Amber Seck handles a similar social-emotional curriculum at Cottonwood Elementary, which includes the 7 Mindsets and Junior Panther Family small groups. She and Principal Natalie Ball recently attended a three-day training in Georgia for the 7 Mindsets curriculum.
“I am in all 18 classrooms, plus one preschool classroom, every week for 30 minutes, utilizing lessons from the 7 Mindsets to lead the focus of my lessons,” Seck said.
Meek said the school district also is preparing to launch the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program, which the Prairie View school district implemented last year.
At the center of the program are cards featuring a yellow ribbon and contact numbers people can use to get help if they are having suicidal thoughts.
Paola High School counselor Justin Elliott is scheduled to attend a two-day training event for the program in February and then come back and train the rest of the district staff before implementing the program in the spring.
Elliott said that once the program is presented to students, they will be asked to fill out a survey asking if they or someone they know is in emotional pain. There is then options listed for them to ask for help. Elliott said he hopes the surveys will help identify students who are in need of assistance.
Meek said some of the details still need to be worked out, but he envisions the program being something that transcends the walls of the schools and catches on in the community. He’d eventually like to see the yellow ribbon symbol on the windows of businesses throughout town, with cards being distributed in multiple areas.
“This is not just a school issue, it’s a community issue,” Meek said.
Changing the narrative
BJ said she fully supports the changing culture at the schools, and she hopes rural school districts continue to seek more resources for suicide prevention, but she’s also challenging herself to make a difference.
In addition to the Shifting Gears organization established in Regan’s honor, BJ also has begun using social media as a platform to help parents understand that suicide is something every parent needs to address with their kids on a regular basis.
She has specifically used “Give Me 20” and “Find Your Light” challenges to focus on saving teens in their darkest moments.
Those who accept her challenge are encouraged to focus on the light in their lives. One way teens can do that is to make life boards featuring all of the things they love and take a picture of it to carry with them at all times. When the darkness creeps in on them, BJ hopes they will look at their boards and spend 20 minutes thinking about the great things in their life.
“If they can choose to end their life in 20 minutes, then isn’t it possible that they can choose to live in 20 minutes?” BJ asked. “We just have to give them the tools to change their narrative. You have to talk about it. Help them find the light. They have to understand that today isn’t perfect, but tomorrow might be, and shouldn’t we wait and see?”