On March 23, 2018, fifty people came together representing seven local high schools and three universities to participate in Forefront Suicide Prevention’s Day of Hope, featuring student representatives from members of the Forefront in the Schools (FIS) cohorts.
It was a day of education, sharing best practices, and inspiration. Topics included understanding stress factors, supporting a friend in crisis, reducing stigma and enacting change at the participating FIS schools and beyond.
The morning began with students relating some of their personal stories about why mental health matters to them, their own personal experiences with suicide, and what they are currently doing to make a difference. One eloquent young sophomore, Elsa Marsh from Mount Si High School, spoke about her recent testimony in Olympia in support of strengthening school district plans for recognition, screening, and response to emotional or behavioral 3 distress in students. To her surprise, she felt our Washington legislators were very interested in hearing what she had to say about mental health in schools. Her experience is an example of how students can engage in the political process by calling their legislator’s office and scheduling a meeting, participating in a public hearing for a bill, or simply writing a letter or an email in support of legislation they care about. Elsa expressed this opportunity allowed her to “extend my influence beyond my school and make a lasting impact on our state.”
The day also included a Forefront staff led discussion on family, school and cultural messages they had received about mental health, including answering a series of questions about common stressors and how they respond to stress. The student responses were nothing short of impressive.
Certainly, there are many issues to address when discussing mental health and illness and the students weren’t afraid to raise the broad spectrum of their awareness: Societal pressures, gender issues, social media, the downplaying of mental health needs, to name a few. Stressors were listed as competition with peers, the need to develop a passion, social judgement, family and roommate pressures, fear of failure, grades and tests.
One student remarked that “mental health is often reduced to symptoms, but it is so much more than that. When someone says you have a broken arm, you don’t say you are a broken arm.” But sadly, people who suffer from some type of mental illness often feel they are seen as the illness rather than a person with an illness.
Furthermore, a common response is sympathy, not empathy. Many students said they had been told, “I know how you feel”… or “So and so went through the same thing”… or “It’s a phase and it will get better.” In other words, these well-meaning responses were sympathetic but unhelpful. However, what they did appreciate was validation of their feelings; comments like, “I’m really glad you told me”… or “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you.” If words are too hard to muster, just sitting quietly beside the stressed person is often a helpful and supportive option. They felt these empathetic comments and actions demonstrated authentic concern and caring which meant a lot to those who were suffering.
The best advice was offered with familial kindness: identify stressors, do what works for you, treat yourself like someone you love, remind yourself you are human and let the little things go, take time for yourself, and ask for help. At this point in the day, the compassionate community feeling was palpable, like a hug encircling the room.
Students also discussed what behaviors to notice and how to ask about suicide directly and candidly. Students recognized that isolation, loss of interest, irritability, too much or too little sleep, negative or dark statements, giving away possessions, lack of attention to self-care, and distraction can be warning signs of depression. Students identified the importance of directly asking the question “Are you feeling suicidal or do you feel like harming yourself?” of their peers when they saw multiple warning signs. It was acknowledged that the ability to ask is eased by practice and sincerity. Students trained in Forefront’s LEARN™ curriculum stated it was a helpful guide for how to assess, ask and offer help to those in crisis.
The day concluded with student groups presenting the creative programs they had implemented at their own schools. Eastside Prep provided the LEARN™ training to students, parents, and teachers. They also enlisted the help of their Graphic Design class to create posters and images for their social media campaign.
Overlake recently began a student led pilot program in the math department aimed at reducing student stress. Students can select a health pass to “opt out” of a homework assignment if a student needs a mental health break is struggling to meet the demands of high school. The students can submit an online form to their teacher regarding this “opt out” with no questions asked. The faculty are considering making this a policy across all disciplines to promote student well-being and self-care.
The University of Puget Sound hosted a Suicide Prevention Awareness Week with open mic sessions, yoga, discussions about the role of pharmaceuticals to people with mental illness, and even panels where faculty and students shared about their struggles with mental illness, stress and anxiety.
The Bush School developed a Student Wellness Center in the wake of a suicide in the community. Balance and mental health education are their current strategies. Therapy dogs now work regularly on the Bush campus (and several others) to help reduce stress during finals.
One young man from Muckleshoot High School articulately spoke about taking on a leadership role by modeling and sharing about his experiences preparing for college. He spoke about student potential and positive options for his Native American community, one that has been hard hit with societal challenges.
Finally, the UW Bothell campus celebrated mental health awareness month last May with Resilience Projects to normalize mistakes, and Destress Days which featured yoga, music, cycling and coloring. Furthermore, while polling for stress students discovered that 21% of their students were concerned about food security, so programs were implemented to provide food for those in need. It was amazing to see that the students at each of these schools are more aware and better prepared to host peer to peer programs, create self-care culture, teach LEARN training, and to think outside the box and address what their communities need to maintain their health.
Through the Forefront in the Schools program these high school and college students, counselors and teachers are more intentional about their approaches to wellness and more empowered to support mental health, suicide awareness and prevention on their campuses. They are changing the mental health conversation, reducing stigma and creating healthier communities. Indeed, this was a Day of Hope that will last well into the future with the passion of these bright young leaders who continue to be in the Forefront.
Story by Lisa Wahbe, Forefront Advisory Board Member