The Sunridge Middle School students thought they were just sharing their favorite activities — sports, art, music and exploring the outdoors.
In reality, they were coming up with ways to handle stress and help each other during difficult times.
“You have all shared some great things to do for self-care, and that you can encourage others to do,” said Amanda Walsborn, prevention education coordinator for the Umatilla County Health Department.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, Walsborn taught students a course in suicide prevention and mental health promotion, explaining that making time for your own mental and physical well-being is important in times of stress or trouble. During the class, she taught students to recognize risk factors and warning signs for someone who may be considering suicide, and ways they can reach out to a friend who might be struggling.
Though similar to the “Question, Persuade, Refer” method of suicide prevention that Walsborn teaches to adults, these lessons were tailored to adolescents.
Walsborn had students identify some common myths and facts about suicide.
Some were more obvious, such as the statement: “Only experts can prevent suicide.”
“Myth,” students recognized.
Some questions were a little more challenging.
“Suicidal people keep their plans to themselves,” Walsborn said. “Myth or fact?”
Students weren’t sure. Walsborn said while people often think this is true, those considering suicide will often communicate what they are thinking and how they are feeling, but not always directly.
“They may do it through writing, drawing, music — other ways to communicate pain and suffering,” Walsborn said.
She cautioned students not to try and be the only person that helps.
“Why might a friend not want you to tell an adult?” she asked students.
Walsborn said while students may be nervous about betraying a friend’s confidence, or that a friend may say they don’t want an adult to find out, it’s important to get help anyway.
“The potential consequence of not speaking up when someone is suffering far outweighs those of speaking up,” she said.
Some Hermiston High School leadership students have recently started a project aimed at changing school culture. The “We Care Project” aims to let students know that they are supported and can ask for help.
“It’s not in response to any one incident,” said leadership advisor Dave Rohrman. “After what’s gone on with the losses we’ve experienced in the last few years through various forms of violence — we’re reaching out, just with a simple, straightforward message. It may not cure the problem we’re seeing, but it can definitely help.”
The project started about a month ago. So far, students have papered the school with more than 1,000 signs and posters with various messages of support for their peers. There are statements such as “You are not alone,” “You are loved,” “Together we stand stronger” and “Be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace.”
Leadership students said they’ve received mixed reviews about the project so far.
“The first time we did it, it was a negative response,” said Trystin Seavert, a senior leadership student. He said further efforts have gotten more positive feedback.
“I think emotions were still running high,” said Tyler Rohrman, another senior. He noted that they first posted signs shortly after a student had passed away.
“[A student] said, ‘I don’t like the signs because I don’t believe it,’” Dave Rohrman said. “She said, ‘I have a hard time because when I go through the day, I don’t see that kindness from students and staff.’”
Rohrman said that was tough to hear, but it reinforced the importance of letting students know their peers and teachers want to support them.
“We need to be that kind voice, that smile,” he said. “If they don’t believe that’s sincere, we need to work harder to make sure there’s a sincere effort.”
ASB President Dante Rome said they plan to hold more events and activities with the same message, and hope to hear feedback and suggestions from students.
Hermiston High School counselor Melody Bustillos said the health curriculum has a unit on suicide and mental health, but they are trying to implement more discussions about the subjects into other aspects of school.
“Students are really asking for a conversation about mental health,” she said.
“For example, in English class,” she said. “They teach Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade. How can we talk about signs and symptoms Romeo displayed that indicated that he was depressed or had suicidal tendencies? I think [...] we can continue to bring awareness to students and staff through everyday situations.”
Bustillos said systems of reporting threats and mental health issues, such as Safe Oregon, have helped schools keep track of students who are struggling. The district is also trying to provide mental health and suicide prevention training for staff. This year, high school staff will receive QPR training, and Bustillos hopes to eventually be able to offer it for the entire district. Next year, she hopes to have the district participate in a mental health first aid class taught by Lifeways.
Bustillos said the school also offers postvention — support for students and staff after a traumatic incident. If a student or staff member passes away, the district will provide a crisis team on campus and will reach out to groups or individuals most impacted by the loss.
Hermiston School District Psychologist Jon Nitz said the Pendleton service Cason’s Place offers a way for students, parents and family members to deal with the loss of a loved one. He said the program focuses on allowing children to express their grief in whatever way they feel, whether talking to someone or playing a game or sport.
Bustillos said things like the We Care Project have opened the door for more discussion in schools.
“We need to continue focusing on building relationships,” she said. “Knowing who our students are — it’s hard to know if something is amiss with students if you don’t know them.”
She added that there are gaps in the local mental health system, especially for crisis services.
“We either call the police or take someone to the emergency room. We don’t have a facility specific to mental health,” she said. “There are not enough resources for what the need is.”
Bustillos said the responsibility then falls to parents and teachers to be more aware of a student’s behavior.
“We really welcome information from the community,” she said. “We have processes in place to keep our students safe, but if we don’t know what’s going on, we can’t use our processes.”