Saturday, August 19, 2017

Frankfort Independent Schools offer programs for students at risk of attempting suicide; experts offer guidance

Frankfort Independent Schools are working to prevent teen suicide, attempts of which are probably more common than most people think.

Austin Horn reports for The State Journal in Frankfort that a 2016 survey of Kentucky high-school sophomores found that 8.2 percent said they had attempted suicide, and the rate was 8.4 percent in the Bluegrass, where Frankfort is located. The national rate is 9.4 percent.

“It’s a very serious issue,” Dr. Julie Cerel, a psychologist and professor at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work and president of the American Association of Suicidology, told Horn.

School social worker Marci Fritts told Horn that she coordinates mental-health services for at-risk students at Second Street School and Frankfort High School through a partnership with the Kentucky Counseling Center.

“We have clinical therapists working with all of our identified students that (we identified) either through talking with parents, through collaboration with teachers, through referral in school, and approaching guardians and parents about services that potentially would benefit the student,” Fritts said. “We have two full-time therapists at Second Street School, and we have a therapist on-site at the high school.”

The school system also partners with Operation Making a Change, a program designed to provide young males with mentorship, and Fritts heads her own program called “My Life, My Choice,” a prevention-based program provided to all female sophomores at Frankfort High School.

Statewide, all middle and high-school students are required to receive some form of suicide prevention education by Sept. 1, and teachers are required to receive at least two hours of training. In addition, the state is also rolling out a “Sources of Strength” peer-led prevention program this year.

The biennial “Kentucky Incentives for Prevention” survey is given to students across the state in even-numbered grades starting in the sixth grade. It has only asked about suicide since 2014, when the suicide attempt rate for Kentucky's 10th-graders was 8 percent, compared to 8.6 percent nationwide. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Kentucky's teens and young adults.

Cerel told Horn that there is never just one factor that leads a person to attempt suicide, but one study found that teens who had attempted suicide reported that the most common reason was a recent break-up, regardless of the length of the relationship. Cerel warned parents to take these break-ups seriously.

“If a teen is stressed or feels like something has happened and they’re never going to get over it, the adult response shouldn’t be, ‘Oh, that’s nothing, you’re going to grow up and find somebody else,’” Cerel told Horn. “The response probably should be, ‘I understand that this feels like the worst thing ever; let’s figure out a way to get you some help.’”

Dr. Vicki Hayes, a psychologist in Frankfort, told Horn that sometimes there are warning signs that shouldn't be ignored.

“One of the biggest behavioral things you want to watch for as a parent is abrupt change in a child’s behavior,” Hayes said. “Pay a lot of attention to that and try to find out what’s going on. If they’re saying anything morbid or that sounds suicidal, don’t let that ride. Don’t ever call a bluff or think that they don’t mean it. It’s better to err on the side of caution.”

Bullying is often cited as a reason for youth suicide attempts in Franklin County, Hayes told Horn.

“There are very few people who have not been bullied. I think there’s a huge bullying problem in Franklin County, and I’m concerned about it — all the schools,” Hayes said. “I don’t think any of them are doing enough to stop the bullying here in this particular county.”

In the 2015-16 school year, the Frankfort schools, with an enrollment of 735, reported 47 events of harassment, a rate of 6.4 percent, while the Franklin County Public Schools, with an enrollment of 6,131, reported 312, a 5 percent rate. The county system has two high schools, Franklin County and Western Hills. "The State Journal reached out multiple times to both Franklin County public high school psychologists but did not receive a response by press time," Horn reports.

Horn notes that the recent Netflix television series "13 Reasons Why," which depicts the aftermath of a fictional teenage girl's suicide, has also exposed teens to suicide and may have "adverse effects." This series has prompted schools throughout the state to send resource letters home with guidance on how to talk to children about suicide and has also warned that "vulnerable youth" should not watch it.

"Cerel referenced a recent study that showed Google searches for suicide methods increased by as much as 28 percent in the two weeks following the release of “13 Reasons Why," Horn reports.

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