On Wednesday, Feb. 28, residents from across Delta County gathered to discuss solutions to the ever-growing issue of suicide within the community. It is common to respond with anger, numbness, or go into a frenzy after incidences like this occur. To kick off the meeting, Sheriff Fred McKee encouraged the group to put aside their anger, acknowledge there is a problem, and take responsibility while seeking positive practical solutions to the problem at hand.
The forum was put together by the Safety, Education and Wellness (SEW) coalition, which was formed in the wake of two teen suicides within a month. Members of the coalition include the Delta County School District, the Center for Mental Health, Delta Police Department, Delta County Sheriff's Office, A Kidz Clinic, Delta County Memorial Hospital, HopeWest, Delta County Health & Human Services, and numerous faith-based organizations.
Sheriff McKee stated that from Jan. 1 to the day of the meeting on Feb. 28, Delta County law enforcement agencies had responded to 120 mental health/suicide calls. With the assistance of mental health professionals, the police department has been able to intervene and prevent deaths in most of those cases. So there's been success in suicide prevention, but not enough.
Ed Hagins, the chief operations officer of the Center for Mental Health, came forward as an individual who has lived with the experience of mental illness and as a survivor of his own battle with suicidal thoughts and attempts, as well as knowing the loss of family members who have taken their own lives. He is a licensed professional counselor.
"Blame and anger while real, honest, and normal responses to the loss of life, don't serve to help reconcile why a fellow human being could take their own life. Instead seek to honor the person, try to respect them and those they have left behind and ultimately try to work with as many as who will join to curtail the tragic loss of life."
Shawna Magtutu, counselor at Delta High School, was next to step up to the podium. In Magtutu's 11 years as a school counselor, she's experienced five student suicides and said that not a single one gets easier. She said the old solutions haven't worked so the SEW coalition are trying to prevent mental distress. She called this an upstream approach.
"What I have found in my years as a school counselor is that kids do not want to ask for help," she said. "They can all be talking in a group, and they are talking about some of the most difficult topics out there, but they are scared to talk to a parent, even a loving parent."
Magtutu continued by saying that Delta High School is working to implement a research-based national curriculum designed to be a comprehensive wellness program that is not just for suicide prevention. This curriculum, called Sources of Strength, recognizes that some of the major risk factors include substance abuse, domestic violence, bullying and suicide.
"This is all to try and encourage those peers and those students to ask for help and to make connections rather than keeping all to themselves," said Magtutu.
She further stated that in times like this we respond with all the first responders and mental health experts we can have in our schools and in the community. "As you know that becomes exhausting and we can never truly guarantee success," she said. "Over time the first responders become exhausted. If we start to focus our efforts upstream, like the Sources of Strength model, there is so much more we can do by connecting, preventing, and building those relationships. Once your prevention is strong and focused, it often becomes the best postvention practice."
With that Shawna Magtutu handed the microphone to Joey Boese the executive director of A Kidz Clinic.
A Kidz Clinic is a school-based health center that's also considered to be an upstream prevention resource for the community. The clinic provides medical, dental, behavioral, and mental health services.
Boese said, "What we know and what research tells us is that long-term relational support is important and it's a protective factor in preventing our youth from becoming suicidal or acting on suicidal thoughts. As adults, we must be intentional in developing caring relationships with young adults."
Boese introduced Maddie White, the integrated care therapist for A Kidz Clinic, who shared eight sources of strength to be considered in small group discussions.
Family support, positive friends, mentors, healthy activities, generosity, spirituality, medical access, and mental health were the eight sources of strength that were discussed.
Sarah Young, pediatric nurse practitioner at A Kidz Clinic, then discussed the normality of three common emotions -- anger, anxiety and depression. "All of these happen and they are part of being human. There may be one that tends to happen more in your brain chemistry and with your heart more than the others, but they come and go."
After a short break to give the group time to discuss and think about the eight sources of strength, Gary Hayner stepped to the front of the room to say a few words about his son, Ben, who was one of the two high school students who recently took their own life.
" ... He had been in counseling for over a year. The counselor had thought that we were making great progress, we thought we were making great progress. He apologized to his little sister ... he apologized to teachers that he made cry.
"If we would have known these things we would have locked him up. He was making amends to everybody before this happened...
"If I had known that he had apologized to that one teacher that he made cry every day in class, I would have known that something was wrong, but the teachers didn't say anything ...
"It just happened so quick. He came home smiling, happy, texting people and then we heard a gunshot. I walked into that room seven seconds after it happened but I want people to know you've got to listen to these kids. They mention it one time, they probably mean it. He wasn't a dumb child by any means, he was an amazing young man, but he talked about with great knowledge comes great depression. I didn't have any idea how smart that young man was. It scares me and hurts me that I didn't pay attention," Hayner concluded.
Greg Teel is the pastor at the Hayners' church, Calvary Baptist. He talked about being a trusted adult in the community.
Teel explained that the community needs to get involved in others' lives. Whether it's the person you work out with at the gym, the boy next door, or the quiet individual in the back of a church, those relationships matter.
" As we care about one another and love on one another in this community, we have to remember that it's not just the young people, it's the old, the middle age and everybody in between. Instead of trying to fix their problems, we're really just trying to be on a journey with them and be there as support for them. If you do this for them, then they will do this for others and have the contagion effect."
Teel continued by saying that this is not just a problem for the professionals to deal with, it's for each and every one of us to get involved and be an agent of change.
Kurt Clay, assistant school superintendent, outlined action steps the community needs to take for this to be a success. He focused on hope and resiliency, and urged audience members to remember that a lot of the things we are doing now are working.
"It is important not to throw out everything," he said. "Remember those lives we have saved, and there have been a lot, so we can be proud of that. Now we have to build on that. We can't just focus on the negative; we really have to focus on the positives in that upstream model."
Clay reminded the group, "We are the agents of change. It's not just the mental health professionals. It's not just the principal at the high school. It's not just the law enforcement. It is all of us as a community."
Clay encouraged the group to share stories of hope from their own connections in the community members. Those connections can be made by volunteering in the community.
"People want change. They bring up these great ideas, and five days later we never see them. We need our community to step up and say not only am I suggesting this, but I'm going to follow through and I'm going to see that this happens. That's our action step. That's what we are challenging each and every person here tonight to do -- to step up and step out of the comfort zone and go make that one relationship, that one extra volunteering piece. That one extra step to make that commitment to someone else in our community," concluded Clay.
Shawna Magtutu returned to the podium to thank the members of the community who have been supportive through this difficult time. From their actions, Magtutu said students are learning how to connect when they are having struggles. They are discovering they do have trusted adults in their lives.
Magtutu presented images of the activities and support the high school received before she opened up the floor to two individuals in the audience who wanted to share their thoughts .
Derek Carlson, principal at Delta High School, closed the meeting with these comments:
"We have endured a very tragic month. Over the life of a career working with kids, I hate to say it, but this isn't the first time we've had to battle through these kinds of months. Its heartbreaking and all of us want to see those incidences stop.
"Number one I want to make sure you understand how appreciative we are at Delta High School for this community...
"Number two, it is not that hard to do what Mr. Clay asked us to do just a few moments ago, to stand up and break that awkward silence. It's not hard to do that either a kid either ... Our society has moved us away from one another and in times like this, we need to recognize that we need to move more towards one another."
Carlson finished by saying that his family recently lost a family member who struggled with mental health and as a result struggled with homelessness. After this incident, the Carlson family started to serve at the Abraham Connection. He again challenged the community to get involved in others' lives.