“I know my son is the reason you all are here,” Tami Charles told school counselors and principals gathered in a hotel meeting room.
Charles stood up from her seat among an audience gathered at a conference session titled “Suicide Prevention for Youth Under 12,” to offer the final words of the workshop. Earlier this year, Charles’ ten-year-old son Seven Bridges died by suicide, after his family said he struggled with bullying as a fifth grader at Kerrick Elementary.
Charles took the audience by surprise by showing her enthusiasm for the on-going conversation her family’s tragedy has inspired.
“I’m actually helping you cope by being here,” Charles said. “I’m here for you, I’m here for the public. We’ve had our hit.”
Charles called the training session part of the “collateral beauty” that has followed her son’s death. The workshop was one of ten break-out sessions at a bullying and suicide forum hosted Thursday by Jefferson County Public Schools.
Keeping A Dialogue Open About Continued Suicide Rise
In organizing its first Bullying and Suicide Prevention Summit, JCPS is trying a new tactic. The district is trying to keep a dialogue going about mental health in schools, at a time when more youth are taking their own lives in Kentucky and nationally.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported a surge in suicides among 10- to 14-year-olds in recent years. Data from the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services show youth suicides nearly doubled in 2015 and have remained steady since, with more than 30 Kentucky children completing suicide each year.
JCPS held the forum to bring together school counselors, principals and administrators to talk about suicide prevention and response strategies. JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said nearly every school in the district sent at least one staff member to attend.
During a panel discussion, Pollio emphasized the need for schools to have systems in place to respond to students’ mental health needs and reports of bullying or suicide threats.
“When all the things are happening in a crazy day, and a student is reaching out for help, what systems automatically occur at each and every school to make sure that child has the supports they need to be successful?” Pollio asked.
Pollio said he wants to see all JCPS schools develop those kinds of protocol, though he did not say it should amount to any one specific policy.
High school senior Allison Tu spoke during the opening panel discussion about the importance of including students in discussions about mental health in schools. Tu is the founder of StAMINA, a student organization at DuPont Manual High School that advocates for mental health awareness. Tu said she would like to see the student led group become a model that could spread to other schools in the district.
“That can absolutely look like student-led councils and student-led teams in schools, but I think that can also look like actively listening to students,” Tu said.
Tu’s comments caught the attention of at least one school counselor in the room.
“I know we have some strong students at Western that would also like to create a program,” said Nicole Scales, a freshman counselor at Western High School, “So hopefully by listening to [Tu] today, we can take that information back to our schools.”
Pollio said one goal of the forum was to offer on-going professional development for school staff regarding student mental health, beyond a typical slate of training for new staff in the fall.
“Clearly this is a first step and not the only step,” Pollio said, pointing to a need to attack the root causes of students’ mental health issues.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available here or by calling 1-800-273-8255.