Delta High School has been rocked by two student deaths in three weeks. The most recent, the result of suicide, prompted school administrators to reach out to law enforcement and to the Center for Mental Health early Sunday. The goal was to discuss how to respectfully address immediate concerns from students, staff and families, and also to heighten awareness of suicide prevention efforts.
"We must unite as one community to take care of one another -- to help break the silence when someone is struggling, and be the connection to spread hope, help, and strength in all corners of our school and community," school superintendent Caryn Gibson said following the crisis team meeting Sunday morning.
At that meeting, DHS principal Derek Carlson called for a sensitive, yet strongly directed response that addresses the issue of suicide and grief head-on.
With the death of the first DHS junior, the school emailed a letter to parents, read a statement to all students during their first-hour classes, and made school counselors, youth pastors and mental health professionals available throughout the week. Students filled a locker with handwritten notes for the student's family.
That process took a lot out of counselors and teachers who have close relationships with their students. On Sunday, they shared concerns about their own abilities to deal with the most recent death. The DHS junior was described as a student leader who excelled in chemistry and engineering, and who had built strong relationships with peers, counselors and teachers who maintained a watchful eye. Bullying was not an issue; on the contrary, counselors said the student was surrounded by love and acceptance. Earlier in the day he had been in an AP study session, then at the home of a staff member.
"You guys did everything right, but sometimes even in the face of doing everything right, this still happens," said Shelly Spalding, chief executive officer of the Center for Mental Health.
"You can't stop somebody from taking their life if that's their goal. That's a really hard reality to live with."
"Death by suicide is difficult to understand, especially because it is sudden and it will never make sense," said Gibson. "Delta High School and multiple agencies will work diligently to provide numerous interventions and supports to all students and families."
"I think all the kids are asking themselves the same questions as the adults," said Willyn Webb, a therapist who serves as director of Vision Charter Academy. "What could I have done? How could I not have seen it?"
A statement was developed to start the conversation in first-hour classes Monday morning, with the understanding both teachers and students would need time to grieve and to process their feelings. "When we hurt, we grieve, and it's important for kids to see that," said Ed Hagins, chief operations officer of the Center for Mental Health.
Center for Mental Health therapists encouraged the adults to be "real," to be transparent and authentic in their conversations with students. But because not all teachers feel comfortable discussing suicide, CMH therapists, school psychologists, law enforcement officers and pastors were also available throughout the day, and arrangements were made for support to continue throughout the week and the month.
To encourage students to reach out to trusted adults, to get help for classmates who may be leaving warning signs on social media viewed primarily by teens, the first-hour message for DHS students included information about the 741741 24-hour crisis text line.
Planning efforts also included a thoughtful discussion about how to pay tribute to the students while taking a strong stance on the issue of suicide. Resources were provided for staff and students who wanted to learn more.
Across western Colorado, the issue of suicide touches upon all males and females of all ages. In the six-county region served by the Center for Mental Health, there were 42 completed suicides in 2017. Last week, Delta County Sheriff's Office responded to two completed suicides, one teen and one adult, plus a number of mental health crises.
Suicide Warning Signs
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, most people who take their lives exhibit one or more warning signs, either through what they say or what they do.
• People may talk about killing themselves, feeling hopeless, having no reason to live, being a burden to others, feeling trapped or unbearable pain.
• Behaviors that may signal risk, especially if related to a painful event, loss or change, include increased use of alcohol or drugs; looking for a way to end their lives, such as searching online for materials or means; withdrawing from activities; isolating from family and friends; sleeping too much or too little; visiting or calling people to say goodbye; giving away prized possessions; aggression; and fatigue.
• Mood. People who are considering suicide often display one or more of the following moods: depression, anxiety, loss of interest, irritability, humiliation, agitation, rage, aggression and fatigue.
Visit afsp.org or www.centermh.org for additional resources. For 24-hour crisis services, call 252-6220 or 1-844-493-TALK (8255). Crisis counselors are also available 24/7 via text at 741741.
"Our love and support goes out to the families in this extremely difficult situation," Gibson said.