Forefront in the Schools: Looking back on a year of cultural shifts

On a rainy Saturday in April, they came together at the University of Washington to showcase projects and share ideas for a Day of Hope: Young Leaders Suicide Prevention Conference.

Hands shot up in the air, with Forefront in the Schools teams – ranging from three to 12 students with one to two adult advisors or sponsors – eager to share strategies and showcase projects their high schools had implemented over the past year to address mental health and suicide awareness.

Many students had been personally touched by anxiety, depression, or the loss of a friend. School counselors and mentors had come in support of their students, and with their own stories to tell.

After beginning its second year in the Forefront in the Schools program last fall, thirteen high schools (predominantly from King County) are wrapping up an eventful 2016-2017 academic year. Co-sponsored by the Washington State Department of Health and Jolene McCaw Family Foundation, the Day of Hope was one such way for them to foster a collaborative, all-inclusive approach in suicide prevention.

Capstone reflects on 2016-2017 academic year

In a May 19 capstone meeting, Forefront in the Schools cohort representatives (administrators, counselors, and teachers) discussed strategies such as getting parents more involved with training, rallying support for behavioral health screenings, and revamping health class curricula.

“We feel the Forefront trainings and coaching deserves a gold star,” one teacher commented. “It has changed the way we work with students and parents and is doing exactly what we needed it to do.”

In September 2015, Forefront launched Forefront in the Schools, a pilot program which currently has 13 public and private high schools in a cohort.

A snapshot of some teachers, counselors, and administrators mid-discussion at the Forefront in the Schools’ May 19 capstone meeting. – Photo by Forefront.

The three-year program, generously sponsored by the Jolene McCaw Family Foundation, takes a sustainable, all-inclusive approach in which everyone has a role in suicide prevention.

“The Forefront in the Schools program is particularly appealing because we like the approach of starting with a small group of schools as a cohort to really learn from each other and help shape a program that can then hopefully be implemented on a much larger scale,” said Jolene McCaw. “Our vision is that all schools in WA state will make social and emotional health a priority by having strong emotional health and suicide prevention plans in place and abiding by them.”

McCaw expressed how critical it is to reach students early on – during middle and high school years – to ensure that “as much emphasis and value is being placed on their emotional and mental health as there is on academics and sports.”

Recent survey shows need for upstream approach

Quote by Jolene McCaw of the Jolene McCaw Family Foundation. – Graphic by Forefront.

Gatherings like the Day of Hope and the capstone meeting also provided a space to discuss solutions, given the latest trend: Forefront did a recent interview with the Seattle Times about the state’s youth showing increasing rates of depression as well as suicide attempts. According to the recently released Washington Healthy Youth Survey, a quarter of our 8th graders and a third of high school seniors report feeling depressed.

Additionally, nine percent of 8th graders, ten percent of 10th graders, and eight percent of 12th graders report having attempted suicide.

That’s just in our own backyard. In another study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, major depressive episodes were up by 37 percent from 2005 to 2014.

What’s worse, is that many of these teens are under-treated, or not treated at all. In the state of Washington alone we lose two youth (ages 10-24) every week to suicide. Across the nation, suicide remains the second leading cause of death amongst our youth.

So, how do we change this trend? One thing we can do is change how we approach mental health: Making it easier for youth to talk about mental illness more openly, putting best practices into use early and often, supporting more research, reducing stigma, and teaching wellness.

Mental health hygiene can be taught, and that’s where Forefront in the Schools comes in. School administrators, teachers and students can learn to recognize and respond to stress, anxiety and depression. And crisis protocols can be put in place to help heal communities in the event of a tragedy.

The Forefront in the Schools program teaches educators the warning signs to look for – and the best practice strategies for intervention.

It gives schools tools to assess current suicide prevention methods, helps them look at crisis response protocols, and implement upstream work through behavioral health screenings, social/emotional learning (SEL) and mental health resources for students. Furthermore, it trains administrators, teachers, and students on the most effective processes for suicide prevention, intervention, re-entry, and post-vention.

As a result, it creates a school community and resource base for innovation, collaboration, support and referrals from other school teams.

During the school year, FIS schools meet monthly with a Forefront mentor. They also convene for conferences at the beginning and end of the school year to share how they are addressing wellness in their schools, ask questions, discuss challenges and collaborate on best practices.

Schools exchange ideas, strategies

Sigrid Reinert also believes in the Forefront in the Schools approach. On behalf of the Washington State Department of Health, Reinert provided the Garrett Lee Smith Campus Suicide Prevention Grant to sponsor the Day of Hope – in which she also participated discussions and in a mock intervention exercise with students and counselors.

Toward the end, Reinert spoke about how inspired she felt upon seeing how active and innovative the students and counselors were.

Some schools have started mindfulness committees, meditation and wellness clubs. Others made posters and stickers with resources such as suicide warning signs and hotline numbers. Still other schools have created spaces on campus for relaxation and meditation.

Other FIS school teams’ projects included:

  • Mount Rainier High School presented a video they created, titled “Mental Health Matters,” addressing issues of stress
  • Roosevelt High School spoke about parent education nights, handing out “Get Help” cards, and encouraging mental health breaks by unplugging devices at lunch and talking
  • Overlake High School created an art project, “Positive Walls of Words,” to encourage kindness, support and well-being
  • Mount Si High School and Roosevelt High School have started peer to peer training

Day of Hope’s participating colleges/universities are required to be members of the Washington Campus Cohort Suicide Prevention Program.

The UW Huskies for Suicide Prevention and Awareness (HSPA) made a strong showing. Members shared their best-practice coping skills for Stress Week (the week before finals): creating Husky Hope Notes with sentiments like “You’re worth more than your grades,” bringing in therapy dogs, and distributing treat bags filled with snacks.

On May 20, HSPA also led the fourth annual Husky Help and Hope Walk to raise awareness, share stories, and fund support for mental health and suicide prevention initiatives on campus.

The Day of Hope ended with warm hugs, email and card exchanges, and more feelings of connection.  The room acknowledged that productive action is being taken, and that it is proving effective.  There is certainly more work to be done, but the culture is shifting school by school.

“As a school counselor, I feel like I have a team of people working WITH me now to promote mental wellbeing and to prevent suicide,” one Forefront in the Schools representative commented anonymously. “I no longer feel like I am the only one in the school tasked with this very large endeavor.”

Indeed, the day delivered on its promise.