Students in Summit County rally to fight youth suicide
One of the rising causes of teen death is not attributed to a specific activity or physical illness. It is suicide. From 2011 to 2015 in Utah, youth suicides – between ages 10 and 17 – increased by 136 percent, according to the Utah Department of Health. The national average was an increase of 23.5 percent.
Summit County is taking a community approach to tackle the epidemic, but students are taking a major lead, said Aaron Newman, Summit County mental health and substance abuse coordinator. Although the county still has high numbers compared to the national average, the county is lower than the state.
“We realize that this is a problem, and we are getting more aware of it,” he said.
The county is trying to get ahead of the curve by implementing new programs, he said. CONNECT Summit County, a nonprofit that educates the public about mental health wellness, emerged a few years ago. Last year, Summit County created a Mental Wellness Alliance and a local chapter of the international program Communities that Care (CTC) formed in the county. Since that time, breakout groups began for parents and youth.
The CTC youth council includes students from Park City School District, North Summit School District and South Summit School District. The students meet once a month to talk about how the mental health awareness groups at each school can better serve their individual student populations, said Mary Christa, Communities that Care coordinator for the county.
“The students are leaders in their schools in shifting the culture to one of connection, authenticity and inclusion,” she said.
Kara Beasley, a junior at South Summit High School, said that the CTC council has been a great resource to get ideas from other school clubs that are tackling similar issues. She created South Summit’s STAR (Start Taking an Active Role) club this year.
“I noticed that there was nothing in my school for kids at all, nothing for students who are struggling,” she said.
Beasley said she has learned a lot from the council about ways to educate and include all students at the school, but also to educate herself.
“Every day, I try to find someone I don’t know in my school and go talk to them and say, ‘Hey how are you doing?’” she said. “It’s been really cool.”
Her hope is to have more students develop that attitude to reduce bullying and negative peer pressure at the schools. The council’s mission statement is “Collectively, we have the power to create a more loving, kind and accepting culture, which can change someone’s life.”
Beasley said the council has already created bonds between schools. Before, students from Park City High and South Summit High were seen as opponents in sports. Now, she has friends across district lines. Eli Levine, president of Park City High School’s new club MPACT (Mental and Physical Advocacy Coalition) said that it has been powerful to see fellow students taking a stance against youth suicide and mental health issues. By having a conversation about these issues, he said not only his peers, but parents are listening more than they were previously.
“It opens their eyes,” he said. “I think that by us bringing (these issues) into the light and having kids talk about them and be open and honest about them, it really changes their perspective on the whole thing.”
There are other measures being taken at all three districts to target youth suicide and mental health, as well. HOPE Squads, which are trained in ways to reduce suicidal behavior, have started at Park City High School and Treasure Mountain Junior High. North Summit High School has its own HOPE club, which is also involved in the CTC youth council. Staff members at all districts have also begun to participate in suicide prevention training.
Newman said that tackling the issue will take a community, and it helps having supportive students.
“By having so many people at the table, it really helps us find ways and utilize the talents that each of the organizations or people at the table bring,” he said. “(The council) is going to be our front line in the schools.”
One resource the schools have been utilizing is the SafeUT app, which can be used by parents, teachers and students. There is a place to send anonymous tips that go straight to school administration and a crisis button that connects to the suicide line at the University Neuropsychiatric Unit at the University of Utah Hospital.
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The Park City School District offices were inadvertently locked, but security footage was reviewed and the only two community members who showed up were let in and joined in an informal chat with Board of Education members and staff.