Teachers, parents gather at GMHS to learn about Suicide Prevention

By Marceil Skifter


On January 21, approximately 25 parents and teachers gathered in the Grand Meadow High School commons to hear a Suicide Prevention presentation by Casey Lind, administrative director for Fernbrook Family Center.

Fernbrook is a mental health agency that provides a variety of mental health services to adults and children across southern Minnesota, with physical locations in six counties. The agency has partnered with the Southern Minnesota Education Consortium (SMEC), which is made up of seven school districts including Grand Meadow.

Fernbrook has been able to provide both school-based and school-linked mental health services in four of the seven school districts, thus far, and after the tragic loss of a Grand Meadow student by suicide in November, Superintendent Paul Besel and Principal Jacob Schwarz asked Lind to speak to Grand Meadow teachers and parents about suicide prevention and intervention.

Lind recalled, “After my conversation with the father of the student, Fernbrook began working with the administration in Grand Meadow Schools, to develop a plan to be able to provide this presentation with additional resources for parents and families in the community. The Grand Meadow school district did a phenomenal job organizing the event and getting the word out to the community so that anyone who wanted would be able to attend the presentation.”

When Lind met with GM School’s parents and teachers for the recent presentation, he focused on the various risk factors and warning signs related to suicide, how to talk with someone who may be struggling with suicidal thoughts or feelings, who to contact for help if themselves or someone they know was struggling with suicidal thoughts or feelings, as well as some of the common myths or misconceptions surrounding suicide.

Lind also gave information on what can be done after a suicide in the community and provided information related to protective factors and interventions that can be helpful when interacting with someone who may be feeling suicidal.

Lastly, this presentation offered information related to support groups, resources in the area, crisis lines, and other online tools that can be accessed to help prevent suicide and talk about suicide with their loved ones.

During this presentation, directors from two other counties where Fernbrook provides services were in attendance, as well as the Fernbrook therapist for Grand Meadow Schools, in order to provide more of a “panel” for those attending the presentation to ask questions pertaining to the topic.

Lind said, “Our hope is that by providing this information for communities and offering our support, we can reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and suicide. We also hope that it helps provide the community members and school districts with tools that they can use to help prevent suicide, while at the same time, creating an environment or culture within those communities and districts, where people feel safe and comfortable to talk about suicide. If we don’t talk about it, we can’t change it.” Lind reminds people that an individual does not have to have been diagnosed with a mental illness in order to be suicidal. Approximately 54 percent of all suicides are carried out by a person without a known or diagnosed mental health condition.

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The following information was given to those attending the Suicide Prevention presentation, and most said they found it to be very informative and helpful.

Talking to a person about suicide, five take-aways …

1) ALWAYS consult with a qualified and licensed mental health professional (LICSW, LPCC, LMFT, LP) when dealing with suicidal individuals;

2) Be aware of triggers for the child, and help the child and the child’s parents identify and avoid triggers if, and when, possible;

3) When talking to a suicidal individual it is important to stay calm, supportive, and non-judgmental;

4) You cannot make a suicidal person more suicidal by talking about suicide and their feelings. Ask the hard questions if needed;

5) When working with someone struggling with suicidal thoughts or feelings, remember Ideation, Plan, and Behavior (How frequently do they have suicidal thoughts? For how long? Do they have a plan? How lethal is the plan? How developed is the plan? Do they have access to the means, a time, and a place? Have they ever attempted in the past? Current self-injurious behavior? Currently talking or writing of suicide?

Following are some statistics on suicide…

~ There are 123 suicides per day in the U.S. – about one every 12 minutes, up 1.9 from 2015

~ The annual suicide rate is 13.9 per 100,000 in the U.S.

~ 800 more people died by suicide in 2016 compared to 2015, the highest annual rate in 10 years.

~ Since 2000, the rates have been gradually increasing each year.

~ Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death for Americans overall but the second leading cause of death for young Americans (aged 10-24).

~ Rates of suicide for those aged 15-24 have increased more than 200% since the 1950s and 120% for those aged 10-14.

~ Women are three times more likely to attempt suicide; however, men are four times more likely to be successful in the attempt.

~ Men tend to use more lethal means when making an attempt.

~ The ratio of attempts to deaths for those aged 15-24 is about 150:1; 4:1 for the Elderly (65+); and 25:1 national average.

~ Caucasian suicides accounted for about 90% of all suicides in 2016.

~ White males are at the highest risk of completing a suicide across all age groups, 70% of all suicides in 2016.

~ 51% of completed suicides are attributed to firearms, 25.9% are attributed to hanging/suffocation, and 14.9% are attributed to poisoning/overdose.

~ The rate of suicide by firearms increased 1.2% from 2015 to 2016.

Talking to a person about suicide …

Some of the ways to start a conversation about suicide might be: I have been feeling concerned about you lately; Recently, I have noticed some differences in you, and wondered how you are doing; or, I wanted to check in with you because you haven’t seemed yourself lately.

Questions you can ask might include:

~ When did you begin feeling like this?

~ Did something happen that made you start feeling this way?

~ How can I best support you right now?

~ Have you thought about getting help?

What you can say that helps:

~ You are not alone in this. I am here for you.

~ You may not believe it now, but the way you are feeling will change.

~ I may not know exactly how you feel, but I care about you and want to help.

~ When you want to give up, tell yourself you will hold off for just one more day, hour, minute– whatever you can manage.

When talking to them, DO:

~ Be yourself. Let the person know you care, and that they are not alone.

~ Listen. Let the suicidal person unload and vent their anger or sadness. No matter how negative the conversation seems, the fact that the conversation is happening is a positive sign.

~ Be sympathetic, non-judgmental, calm, patient, and accepting. They are doing the right thing by talking about their feelings.

~ Offer hope. Reassure the person that help is available and that suicidal feelings are temporary. Let the person know that his or her life is important to you.

~ If the person says things like, “I’m so depressed, I can’t go on,” ask the question: “Are you having thoughts of suicide or hurting yourself?” You are not putting ideas in their head, you are showing them that you are concerned, that you take them seriously, and that it’s okay for them to share their pain with you.

And DON’T:

~ Argue with the person. Avoid saying things like: “You have so much to live for,” “Your suicide will hurt your family,” or “Look at the bright side.”

~ Act shocked, lecture on the value of life, or say or imply that suicide is wrong.

~ If they are actively suicidal, try not to offer ways to fix their problems or give advice. They are not in a place where rational thought is occurring that would allow them to process the ideas.

~ Don’t make them feel as though they have to justify their suicidal feelings. It is not about how bad the problem is, but how badly it is hurting them.

~ Don’t blame yourself. You can’t “fix” someone’s depression. Their happiness, or lack thereof, is not your responsibility. You can give them the tools, but they need to choose to use them for themselves.

A quick guide to assessing risk/threat level of a suicidal person

Low – Some suicidal thoughts. No suicide plan. Says he or she will not attempt suicide.

Moderate – Suicidal thoughts. Vague plan that isn’t very lethal. No immediate access to means. Says he or she will not attempt suicide.

High – Suicidal thoughts. Specific plan that is highly lethal. Possible access to means. Says he or she will not attempt suicide.

Severe – Suicidal thoughts. Specific plan that is highly lethal. Access to means. Says that he or she intends to attempt suicide.

The following questions can help you assess the immediate risk for suicide (i.e., plans, means, time/place, intent): Do they have a suicide plan? Do they have what they need to carry out their plan (pills, gun, rope, etc.)? Do they know when and where they would do it? Do they intend to attempt suicide?

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Suicide Hotlines and Support Groups

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Suicide prevention telephone hotline. Provides free, 24hour assistance – 800-273-TALK (8255); Southeast MN crisis response number – 844-CRISIS2 (844-274-7472); Crisis Text Line – Nationwide 24/7 service, text “HOME” to 741-741 to be connected to trained crisis counselors; United Way 2-I-I: Call, text, chat for information regarding crisis resources and supports; go to www.afsp.org

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Some of those who attended were asked to comment on the presentation.

School Board member Dan Geier said he was glad he could attend the presentation. “It was great to see some community members, as well as some of the faculty and staff of the school on hand for the presentation.”

He said the topic of suicide and mental health is often “swept under the rug” and avoided. “The old stigma associated with mental illness is difficult to avoid. Mental health issues can affect anyone, at any

age, and it’s important for those people that are in direct contact with individuals who may be struggling to address it in some way if they can,” Geier stated.

He added, “One of the most staggering statistics (to me) given at the presentation was that the rates of suicide for those aged 15-24 have increased more than 200% since the 1950s and 120% for those aged 10-14. With the busy lives people lead, very often educators, coaches and the like spend just as much time with the children of our community as the parents of these children do at home. In my opinion, it is crucial that we stay involved in the lives of the younger population. We need to let them know they can trust us if they feel they are having a problem and to feel free to talk honestly and openly to us about anything and any time. Help is out there. They should not feel alone.”

Elementary teacher Diane Weiss said, “I believe it is a topic that the children need to be educated on. From my point as a teacher, I need to be supportive and listen when a student needs to talk. It was good to hear that I can be sympathetic and nonjudgmental by staying calm, and also being accepting of what they say. I was surprised when they told us that we should not lecture or imply that suicide is wrong. Overall, it was well worth the time to attend the meeting.”

Teacher Brooke Sloan commented, “This presentation was very valuable. Being a parent and a human being can be very difficult at times in life. I hope I never know another soul to die by suicide again.”

Some of the takeaways she shared were: “People need connections to others in life. These connections are where we fall back on in crisis modes. (I have been very fortunate in my life that I have always had amazing people to lean on in difficult times.) People need the skills to deal with adversity prior to the big issues come their way. You cannot learn how to deal with a big loss or trauma while in the heat of the moment. And, it is okay to ask the difficult questions, [such as], ‘Are you feeling like you are going to kill yourself?’” School Board member Wanda Edge said she found the presentation to be “informative and valuable, and referenced the “handout on suicide statistics” provided by Lind (condensed and rewritten above). “I think Grand Meadow is very fortunate to have Fernbrook staff accessible to our students,” she stated.

Edge continued, “For our staff, they need to be prepared to ask those hard questions if they notice changes with a student. For our students, if they see something, they need to say something. If something is posted on social media that they feel concerned about, they need to report it. My personal take away was to ask the question ‘Do you have suicidal thoughts?’ Validate the concerns of the suicidal person and be supportive.”

“We certainly don’t want to sensationalize or glamorize suicide in any way but want to be informed and prepared to ask the tough questions,” Edge added.

It is not possible to try to address all the intricacies of what is on the mind of a suicidal person, nor to have all the answers when it comes to suicide prevention, but all agreed, a good beginning is not being afraid to talk about it.