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‘Enough is enough:’ Johnson County superintendents unite to fight teen suicide

Six Johnson County superintendents announced plans to bring mental health providers, parents, religious leaders, local businesses and school districts together to find ways to address and prevent teen suicide.
Six Johnson County superintendents announced plans to bring mental health providers, parents, religious leaders, local businesses and school districts together to find ways to address and prevent teen suicide. Kansas City Star file photos

At a meeting this past spring, Johnson County’s superintendents realized that every one of their districts had students commit suicide or seriously contemplate it that year.

School leaders decided then that teen suicide was something they could no longer work to prevent alone, said Blue Valley Superintendent Todd White.

“We looked at one another and said, enough is enough. We are not going to allow this to occur without putting considerable time, energy and resources and commitment to fighting this,” White said. “We can’t accept a student saying that the best way to deal with their life is to end it.”

The superintendents of six Johnson County districts — Blue Valley, De Soto, Gardner Edgerton, Olathe, Shawnee Mission and Spring Hill — have announced plans for their districts to work with mental health providers, parents, religious leaders and local businesses.

The collaboration marks an unprecedented effort from school leaders and community groups who have historically worked separately to develop mental health and suicide prevention programs, said Tim DeWeese, executive director of Johnson County Mental Health.

“It’s not just a school issue,” DeWeese said. “It’s not just a mental health issue. It’s a community issue, and if we are going to impact it we are going to need to take a community response.”

Allie Doss lost her daughter Sara Prideaux to suicide in July 2015. Doss co-founded Speak Up, a suicide prevention group that trains school staff to recognize warning signs.

Teen suicides in the county nearly doubled in the first six months of 2018, according to Johnson County Mental Health. While official state numbers for 2017 are not available until next month, eight Johnson County teens under 19 took their lives through November 2017. That’s two more than in 2016.

Nationally, suicide is the third-leading cause of death for children ages 5 to 14 and is the second-leading cause of death for ages 15 to 24.

Superintendents have met with mental health groups, faculty and other advocates twice since an initial summit hosted in June by the Shawnee Mission School District. They plan to meet monthly for the foreseeable future.

De Soto Superintendent Frank Harwood said that school leaders want to share ways to prevent suicides as opposed to just reacting to crises. They want to involve students and train staff to better identify students who are struggling.

“What we’ve talked about is how can we leverage student involvement in this?” Harwood said. “How can we help them not to continue to raise that pressure for themselves? And working more to survey students to get an idea of what is causing those issues and what can we do to address them.”

Some concrete plans have already emerged for the school year that is about to begin.

Districts will involve students and parents in creating public service announcements around suicide prevention and point teens to resources to help. They will plan events for September’s National Suicide Prevention Week.

“These are important messages for our kids to convey to one another,” White said.

Districts also want to train parents how to talk to kids about suicide. Contrary to popular belief, such discussions do not increase the chances that someone follows through, DeLeese said.

Johnson County Mental Health is ready to work with school districts to train both teachers and parents. De Soto, for example, is planning a parent training hosted by two district social workers.

Schools will look at other factors that can exacerbate teenagers’ mental health, such as social media, and ways to teach coping skills.

“We know the pressures are not going to go away, so the next part is how do you build the capacity to deal with those pressures?” Harwood said. “How do we help students manage that?”

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