‘If we don’t teach it, who’s going to do it?’ Jeffco Schools uses mill levy dollars for mental health awareness programs

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JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. — September is Suicide Awareness Month and the Jefferson County School District is helping teachers, students and even parents recognize the warning signs.

Everyone is different when it comes to reasons for considering, attempting, or taking their own life; the “why” always seems to be the missing piece, so the Jeffco School District is hoping to educate their community on this tough topic.

The Suicide Prevention Coordinator at Jeffco Public Schools Michelle Gonzales said the district lost six students to suicide just in the 2020 – 2021 school year. 

The director of Suicide Prevention for Jeffco Schools said if they don’t teach it, kids will try and make sense of it on their own, usually in unhealthy ways. 

The goal of the district’s Suicide Prevention program is to teach staff, students, and parents to recognize those warning signs when they believe someone is coping with hard feelings.  

“You know a lot of times we chalk things up to ‘oh, they’re just hormonal, they’re just adolescents.’ The number one symptom of adolescent depression is irritability, so it might look that they’re just being you know a crabby teenager, they might really be struggling or they might not,” Gonzales said.  

Gonzales said risk factors could make some kids more susceptible to harmful ideology. 

Risk factors include, not feeling a sense of belonging, public humiliation, loss of a major relationship, an unwanted move, or financial strain. 

She adds that everyone’s warning signs and triggers are different, but common signs are as follows: 

  • major behavior changes
  • sleep disturbances
  • irritability
  • anger

These are tough conversations to have with kids. There are 14 secondary schools that have confirmed they are currently piloting a new awareness program. 

The hardest part is beginning the conversation but Gonzales says it’s not so hard when parents start by normalizing conversations about mental health.

If parents feel like their child may be struggling she said parents should ask them directly but frame it in a way so kids don’t get defensive. 

Gonzales recommends parents start by saying when people are really sad, sometimes they want to take their own life, “are you thinking about suicide?” Saying those words, she said, is really key.   

She encourages parents to listen to their teenagers instead of telling them how to feel. 

“Probably one of the hardest things to do as parents, and it’s hard for us because from a parent’s perspective, we’re hearing them tell this 12 or 13 or 14-year-old story and we’re thinking, ‘Oh honey, you’ve got 500 more heartbreaks to come, you’ll get through this, it’s fine’ but from where they’re standing in their shoes it means the world, it’s everything. So we’ve got to try very hard to not minimize it, to step into their shoes and just sit with them and be present with them and validate them,” said Gonzales.    

Gonzales said it might also help to normalize these conversations but it could be helpful if parents share some of their own vulnerabilities using their own experiences; possibly about a situation at work or a time they were embarrassed and share how they overcame that.  

In 2018 Jefferson County voters passed a mill levy of $6 million explicitly approved to go to safety and mental health support in schools. 

Specifically, 52 additional social-emotional specialists were funded and $210,000 was allocated for additional suicide prevention efforts.

Now the district’s goal is to train all 14,000 employees on what they call the Suicide Youth Gatekeeper Model. So far 10,000 employees who work with kids daily have already been trained. 

“When you are thinking about suicide, they are telling their friends 70% of the time. we also know that in youth culture around the world,” said Gonzales. “We know these are topics that they’re talking about. so if we as the adults in Jeffco Schools or in homes are not having these conversations, they’re trying to make sense of it on their own, with their peers, with possibly inaccurate information or unsafe or unhealthy ways of dealing with it.”

The following is a list of schools participating:

  • Green Mountain High School
  • Standley Lake High School
  • Arvada West High School
  • Oberon Middle School
  • Ralston Valley High School
  • Golden High School
  • Jefferson Jr/Sr High School
  • Chatfield High School
  • Dunstan Middle School
  • West Jeff Middle School
  • Dunstan Middle School
  • Drake Middle School
  • Wheat Ridge High School
  • Lumberg Elem (6th grade)

Lakewood High School and Mount View High School are also considering the program.

After recognizing the warning signs, the next step is to connect those students with a trusted adult who has the resources to help. Anyone can contact the Colorado Crisis Line by texting “talk” to 38255.

The Jefferson Center for Mental Health (JCMH) also provides services and resources to support the mental health of children, youth and families call 303-425-0300.

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