PART 1 OF 2
It’s a word we don’t like to say – especially when we fear someone we love may be thinking it – as if breaking its taboos might somehow make it real.
But at Nanaimo-Ladysmith School District they speak about suicide openly and systematically, because the experts know when you talk about it with staff, students, parents – and especially young people who may be fixating on it – you save lives.
“It’s not an easy conversation to broach,” said SD68 Assistant Superintendent Bob Esliger. “When a student approaches, staff have to have the training and skill to enter into the conversation.”
It’s crucial that staff and even students have a clear idea what needs to be done when they feel a student is at risk. “We want to make certain that staff have a full understanding of our protocol and full and complete training to intervene.”
Misconceptions around suicide, who’s at risk and when make that a difficult message to get across, and one that needs to be emphasized routinely. For instance, parents and teachers may not realize how early suicidal ‘ideation’ can take place.
Elementary counsellor Trina Norgan says it’s not only distraught teens who need to be watched-out for. “We see students very young, by Grade 3, making comments about suicide,” she said, “certainly by Grade 5 or 6 when students are 11 or 12 years old.”
Like everyone else who deals with issues of suicide prevention, Norgan came to the same point: if you suspect a child – or anyone else for that matter – is at risk, you have to ask if they are thinking of suicide.
“Asking that question does not prompt students to start thinking about it,” Norgan said. Secondary counsellor Scott Christianson agreed. “In my experience when they are asked the question, they generally feel a sense of relief,” he said.
It’s not good enough to ask a child if they are thinking of ‘harming’ themselves, either. They might be, and say so, but they might also be thinking of going farther.
Students who are showing signs of suicidal ideation, or who are actually talking about it, are often ‘crying out for help,” Esliger said. When the call comes, you need to answer, and know where to get help.
That’s where the SD68 protocol kicks in. Staff and students need to know that there are steps that can be taken, which will help students who are at risk, otherwise the likely response for a cry for help will be avoidance.
Esliger refers to the HELP acronym, which is part of the protocol: If you are Hurting, or suffering Emotional pain, or Loss, we have to develop a Plan to see you through it.
Nanaimo Ladysmith School District has built a close relationship with the Vancouver Island Crisis Society, which operates the Vancouver Island Crisis Line, over more than a decade. Together they have developed an integrated and comprehensive approach.
Lindsay Wells, public education program coordinator with VICS, says the approach is multi tiered, beginning with counselors, youth workers, teachers and administrators in schools.
Students are brought into the loop, too. “We’ve got programs for students as early as Grade 5 and going right on up to Grade 12,” Wells said, “so that everybody has a role to play and some knowledge of what to do.”
For Esliger the objective is a school system that encourages youth to speak up on their own behalf, or on behalf of others. And after more than a decade, the program is working.
Every fall a district meeting is convened where counsellors, youth workers and other school staff from every school attend a meeting where the district’s suicide protocol is reviewed and emphasized.
One person from that meeting then takes the same message to every school at a staff meeting.
“We’re creating an environment where kids are coming to us,” he said. And students are responding; reports of students at risk have become more frequent. “Every year they have gone up and last year was the highest they’ve ever been,” Esliger said. “That’s the best thing, because they’re talking.”
But is the message getting out to parents that there is help for them, if they fear their children are at risk? That will be covered in the Dec. 1 issue of the Chronicle, in Part II of this article.