Fighting youth suicide requires cultural change, says LPS group

Focus on strength, resilience, acceptance, say experts and students

Posted 11/5/18

All too often, young people battle mental health issues in silence and isolation. Winning those battles requires help from their schools, families and community — and perhaps a change in our …

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Fighting youth suicide requires cultural change, says LPS group

Focus on strength, resilience, acceptance, say experts and students

Posted

All too often, young people battle mental health issues in silence and isolation. Winning those battles requires help from their schools, families and community — and perhaps a change in our culture as well.

That was the message at Littleton Public Schools' second annual public forum on youth mental health and suicide on Oct. 29, part of the district's Sources of Strength project, which seeks to change unhealthy norms and culture.

For the second year in a row, the meeting followed close after tragedy in the district, following the deaths of two students by suicide at Arapahoe High School in early October.

But an overbearing focus on youth suicide can be deceptive and counterproductive, said Scott LoMurray, the deputy director of the national Sources of Strength project.

“In a community that has experienced a lot of death and trauma, there can be a narrative around that trauma,” LoMurray said. “Even statistics can be misleading. Saying suicide is the second-leading cause of death of teenagers in Colorado is accurate, but there aren't that many things that kill young people. It can create a false normalization and make it seem more common than it really is.”

Students who already feel hopeless might begin to identify with those stories and statistics, LoMurray said, when the reality is that the vast majority of people who experience suicidal feelings don't go on to die by suicide.

Rather than focusing strictly on intervening at the moment a young person feels close to suicide, LoMurray said, Sources of Strength focuses on encouraging connection with things that build strength and resiliency: family, friends, mentors, healthy activities, generosity, spirituality, and medical and mental health access.

Students who spoke at the event attested to LoMurray's methods.

Aria Peters, an eighth-grader at Options Middle School, said making connections to those around her pulled her out of a dark place personally.

“I thought about suicide in seventh grade,” Peters said. “I was suffering physical and verbal abuse — I stopped coming to school and distanced myself from family and friends. Something had to change. I was tired of being told I was the problem.”

At Options, Peters said, she found strength in spirituality, and met student and adult mentors. Now, Peters said, she draws resilience and self-worth from volunteering at her church, playing on the school basketball team and participating in Girl Scouts.

“There's a light at the end of the tunnel,” Peters said. “Don't let darkness control your life.”

Responsibility for addressing the struggles faced by young people falls on the entire community, said Dr. Anna Mueller, a sociologist and professor at the University of Chicago.

As part of ongoing research into youth suicide, Mueller studied an affluent and interconnected community that suffered several suicide clusters.

The anonymous community, which Mueller calls Poplar Grove, yielded big lessons about the causes of and responses to youth suicide, she said.

First, the community had strict and narrow ideals for what constituted a good kid and a good family, Mueller said, largely centered around academic and athletic achievement.

Second, the community was highly socially connected, which caused youths to have outsized concerns about living up to community ideals and expectations.

Finally, students in the community felt like admitting their struggles were contrary to the expectation that they make their academic and athletic achievements look easy.

“Kids reported intense anxiety and stress around failure or even thinking that failure might occur,” Mueller said. “We need to think about the psychological pain that can result from narrow cultural ideals about what good kids are and what a good transition to adulthood looks like.”

The meeting was encouraging, said Laura Smith, a parent of two LPS students who said she attended because she was distressed by the Arapahoe suicides.

“It's scary, but if I keep thinking everything is scary, I won't have the hope that this can be overcome,” Smith said. “It starts feeling like a death sentence rather than an illness that can be treated.”

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