Blackfoot school to connect teachers, peer leaders to fight suicide

AP

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When the 2018-2019 school year starts, a local charter middle school will be among the latest to implement a suicide prevention program designed to connect school students with trusted adults and peer leaders. 

Blackfoot Charter Community Learning Center Middle School recently received a $2,400 Sources of Strength grant through the State Department of Education to help designated peer leaders, with the help of adult advisers, develop a suicide prevention program for the school.

“We really wanted something that is proactive and preventative and evidence based, and this is the perfect fit,” said school counselor Krista Christensen.

The Sources of Strength program was developed in North Dakota in the late 1990s and early 2000s through a collaboration between various state agencies, rural communities and Native American tribes. It has spread since then to most states and numerous Canadian provinces, and is being implemented here through the Idaho Lives Project.

Christensen said “we live in such an individualistic society” and young people don’t always know that it’s good to seek help if you need it. The idea, she said, is to support connections and relationships within the school, “so everyone knows they have support. Everyone knows they have strength.”

Idaho has consistently had one of the highest suicide rates in the nation, and a report released by a federal agency on Thursday shows just how much worse it has been getting over the years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on nationwide suicide trends showed the rate in Idaho rose 43 percent from 1999 to 2016. The national suicide rate went up 25 percent in the same period. Men are more likely than women to commit suicide — the suicide death rate from 2014 to 2016 was 38 per 100,000 for Idaho men and 11.8 per 100,000 for women, with the overall rate being 24.7 per 100,000. Idaho currently has the sixth-highest suicide rate in the country, the report said.

Idaho is part of a cluster in the Intermountain West where suicide rates are among the highest in the county, which becomes clear if you look at another recent by-county CDC analysis of suicide rates. This analysis, which was released in late May and tracks changes in suicide rates from 2005 to 2015, gives the issue some regional perspective that can be missed just by focusing on state-level numbers.

The Washington Post mapped the numbers, which show Idaho to be part of a western high-suicide region that includes most of the states of Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Montana and the northern two-thirds of Arizona. Northern California, eastern Washington, most of Oregon outside of the Portland area and the western halves of the Dakotas are part of the same contiguous cluster of counties with high suicide rates. This analysis found suicide rates to be both higher and rising faster in rural areas than urban ones.

Idaho has been funding Sources of Strength grants since 2014. Seventeen middle and high schools statewide will receive them in 2018-2019, including two in eastern Idaho — Blackfoot Charter Middle School, plus Butte County Junior-Senior High School in Arco.

Implementation of Sources of Strength will start with district-wide suicide prevention training in the fall. The school will pick some adult advisers — teachers, counselors, administrators — to work with the students, Christensen said. The school will also identify students to act as “peer leaders” who will help to plan school activities and anti-suicide campaign messaging.

The peer leaders, Christensen said, are supposed to represent a cross-section of every clique in the school, not just the star athletes or the most academically gifted students.

“We’ve got to make sure peer leaders are approachable to every group in the school, every student,” she said.

Christensen said she has some students in mind, but the process of naming these peer leaders will start in the fall. Teachers will help to identify them, and their parents will also have to sign off.

The program is aimed at suicide, but Christensen said there also is evidence it helps to reduce bullying and risk-taking behaviors such as substanceabuse. While the full program is being implemented in the middle school, Christensen said staff at Bingham Academy, their affiliated high school, will also be able to take part in the suicide prevention training.

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