District 834 starts community conversation on mental health

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10-34 years.

According to its most recent statistics, 17 percent of students in grades 9-12 seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous 12 months, 13.6 percent of students made a plan about how they would attempt suicide in the previous 12 months and 8 percent of students — one out of 12 — attempted suicide one or more times in the previous 12 months.

This spring Oak-Land Junior High School experienced the loss of a student to suicide, and joins other schools in the Stillwater Area School District that have lost a student, classmate or friend to suicide in the past decade. In response, more than 100 members of the community, organizations and agencies have reached out to the school district to ask, “What can we do?”

“That is a huge number of people,” said community engagement coordinator Carissa Keister. “That is the kind of response we don’t often get.”

Superintendent Denise Pontrelli said the school district is in a unique position in the community in that it can bring together many partners to help families find the resources they need to support the mental and emotional health of students — even starting in elementary school.

“From my perspective, from the very beginning we know that kids have a lot more challenges with mental health,” Pontrelli said. “What we have been doing for the last few years at the elementary is to get more supports earlier.”

Some of the district’s work has been to ensure teachers and principals have access to training and resources when traumatic events take place, Pontrelli said.

“What we have learned through it is that [Principal] Andy Fields did a great job providing support for kids, families and teachers immediately after [this year’s suicide],” Pontrelli said. “People reached out to say, this is enough. Enough is enough. What can we do?”

However, gaps in resources, supports and knowledge exist for staff and for the community, Pontrelli said.

“We have all these people who want to reach out and help,” she said. “The question is how do we get all of our arrows pointed in the right direction, how can we be aware of what each organization’s abilities are, then identifying those gaps and how can we raise awareness in the community across the whole Valley.”

The school district will host a community gathering 6-7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 21, at the Stillwater Public Library to begin work on an initiative to bring about changes to how the community talks about mental health and how to give families resources to identify and address issues before it’s too late.

“There has been conversations for years about supporting our students socially and emotionally,” Keister said. “We have been having those conversations, but now there is that sense of urgency.”

By bringing together different community groups, services and agencies the school district already works with, there could be fewer barriers to finding resources in a crisis.

“What we are hearing from parents is that there are all of these resources, but you never think that you will need them so you don’t often pay attention to them,” Keister said. “Then one day you do need them, and you have no idea where to start.”

Keister said that each of the 100 people who have already reached out to offer resources and ideas will be invited to the community gathering 6-7:30 p.m. June 21 at the Stillwater Public Library, 224 Third St. N. in Stillwater. The gathering will also be open to any other interested community members.

More information will be available at stillwaterschools.org in the coming weeks.

Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]