It takes a whole community to confront youth suicide – and people and programs in place for crisis response, intervention and prevention.
While it’s crucial to have supports at all points of the spectrum, Montezuma County schools hope that by strengthening the preventative piece they can keep crises at bay. And that’s where Sources of Strength comes in – a program that works “upstream” and gives kids a foundation to cope with their struggles.
“How do we help kids before they are in a place of crisis?” said Carrie Schneider, a counselor and Sources of Strength coordinator at the Montezuma-Cortez Middle School.
Sources of Strength came to Montezuma County several years ago after the state’s Office of Suicide Prevention awarded a grant to the Piñon Project for Sources of Strength and “Question, Persuade and Refer” training.
“That’s an intervention approach, so that’s on one side of it,” said Kylie Caraher, suicide prevention coordinator with the Piñon Project. “And Sources of Strength is on the other end of it, which is hopeful, positive, resiliency building.”
In 2017, 1,181 people died by suicide in Colorado, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state had the 10th-highest rate in the nation.
The CDC also found that in 2017 suicide was the second-leading cause of death for people ages 10-34.
Last school year, after two middle school student suicides shook the district, Schneider got connected with the program.
“We were having conversations of how can we tackle this,” she said. “And I’m very passionate about the prevention aspect and the strength-based. I want to be strength-based in my focus.”
Schneider spoke with staff from the Piñon Project who connected her with the grant and program. She became a Sources of Strength trainer, as did a few others in the community – helpful because it means the district can run trainings locally.
All three school districts in Montezuma County are involved with Sources of Strength, Caraher said.
The program operates through kindness-spreading campaigns, along with teaching students how to understand their feelings and handle their emotions.
One part of Sources of Strength focuses on connecting students to adult advisers, someone they can go to in times of struggle.
“If they don’t know how to manage their emotions in positive ways, and they don’t have that trusted adult in school,” Schneider said, “that’s when there’s risk.”
The peer component also is critical because sometimes, adults might not understand what young people are going through, from bullying to academic pressures to the stress of fitting in.
“I feel like we can learn more from each other than we can learn from adults, because we’ve been together in this point of time,” said Chandler Snyder, an eighth grade student and peer leader with Sources of Strength. “While things were different when some of the staff were going to school.”
“They can lead people out of their struggles and help them see the light,” said Cecilia Thom, another eighth grade peer leader.
Working upstreamThe upstream model is a term used commonly in public health.
It comes with a story analogy, and while there are some variations, the one Schneider tells goes like this: A woman living in a village by a waterfall started noticing children falling into the river. She would rescue the children before they went over the waterfall, but still others continued to fall into the water. The village sprang into action, hiring lifeguards and building watchtowers, but they weren’t able to save all the children.
One day, the woman began to walk upstream, upsetting villagers who wanted her help at the site of the danger.
“And she goes, ‘Well, I’m going to stop them from falling in in the first place,’” Schneider said. “So that’s that idea of the upstream prevention, and even that idea of, when a kid does fall in, if they have these strength-based practices, they’re able to find ways to pull them out themselves.”
In terms of suicide prevention, the model involves setting a strong foundation for young people so they know how to identify and deal with feelings of anxiety, depression and anger. It focuses on strengthening “rocks” that students can fall back on in times of stress – positive friends, mentors, healthy activities, family support, generosity, spirituality, medical access and mental health.
“We have a bulletin board out here to say, ‘How are you feeling?’ and then ‘What strengths have you turned to?’” Schneider said. “That’s the common language we’re trying to create for our kids, to start recognizing how they feel and knowing that instead of doing something that’s going to cause more harm, reacting based on anger, anxiety, or sadness, these are actually going to help them bounce back quicker.”
They also try and normalize struggles, to help students realize that they’re not alone.
The Piñon Project’s Caraher said conversations are shifting across the state. One change is that people are willing to talk about the issue, and even say the word “suicide.”
Another change revolves around how it is perceived.
“What they’re starting to find, and what research is showing, is it’s getting away from just ‘It’s a mental health problem’ to ‘A lot of it is hardship-based and trauma-based,’” Caraher said. “And it’s not just people that have a mental illness.”
This year’s plansThe program plans a variety of initiatives this year. At the middle school, youth leaders meet every Wednesday at lunch to talk about student needs and plan schoolwide campaigns.
About 50 middle school students have opted to become peer leaders and underwent training in late September, according to Schneider.
Their campaigns range from making posters that encourage kindness to shooting videos for use in classrooms. One project teaches students to use social media in a supportive way, addressing potentially toxic issues that could arise outside school. They’ve even created a Sources of Strength Snapchat filter.
Leading up to the homecoming football game, the group organized a “Dude ... Be Nice” campaign to coincide with Spirit Week and encouraged students to show kindness and gratitude to classmates, school staff and community members.
“As you become generous, you see more opportunity to help other people, and I feel like that can always be a blessing,” Snyder said.
Eighth grader Alison Freeman has been involved with Sources of Strength since she was in sixth grade.
“I just find that it makes me a better person, while I’m helping other people, because being kind to someone else always makes you feel good,” she said.
She added that it also helps students learn from one another.
“It helps me feel better about myself,” Freeman said. “I struggle with anxiety, and Sources of Strength has really helped me bring that down a lot, compared to how it used to be.”