Prevention programs target Wyoming youth
Part of a four-day series on suicide in Wyoming.
By JACKIE BORCHARDT - Star-Tribune staff writer
Classroom door shut, lights dimmed, a Powerpoint presentation lit one wall.
“Suicide is a tough subject, but it’s everyone’s business.”
Ray Pacheco, a program coordinator with Mercer House, standing to the left of the presentation, spoke somberly.
“There’s a problem and there’s an epidemic in our society, and that’s why we’re here,” Pacheco said.
Pacheco grew up in Casper. While attending Natrona County High School, he lost two friends to suicide.
Now, as a counselor working with teens on Natrona County’s Youth Empowerment Council, Pacheco trains others to lead suicide prevention presentations in schools.
School principals invite the Suicide Prevention Advisory Team (SPAT) to talk to middle and high school students, usually in small groups.
The 45-minute presentations deliver striking facts and preach a message of empowerment — just because you’re kids doesn’t mean you can’t help. Most are delivered by high school students who have experienced suicide in some way.
“It’s not just a program for a lot of kids — it’s their way of truly giving back and wanting to help,” Pacheco said.
Students connect with other students better than adults, Pacheco said.
The student presenters must first undergo a psychiatric evaluation and are limited to two consecutive presentations. Any more might reopen wounds that are only lightly scabbed over.
A skinny black plastic band is one of many colored bracelets piled on Emily Talouse’s wrists.
The band reads “Suicide is everyone’s business” in white text.
Tolouse moved to Casper at the beginning of her freshman year. She fell into “the wrong” group of friends and dealt with depression, cries for help and suicide attempts.
At one point, she and friends called the police to report a friend who had written a suicide note and locked herself in her room. Tolouse watched her friend’s parents turn away the police officers at the door. They didn’t want help.
Parents need to know these things, Talouse said. She wasn’t prepared for that first situation — it was “mind-blowing, eye-opening.”
Parents of young people especially need to be vigilant, agreed Charlie Powell, a licensed psychologist at the Central Wyoming Counseling Center and one of the founders of Natrona County’s Suicide Prevention Task Force.
“As parents, what scares us is we know how rapidly their state of mind can change. To continually preach the message that this too will pass is what we have to do,” said Powell, a father of two. “They might have a negative experience with one Facebook photo and their world just crumbles. We have to help our kids build resistance to that.”
“Parents need to open up a little, but the entire community needs to be aware of it and know the signs,” Talouse said.
Talouse knows now that saving a life is more important than guarding a friend’s secret. She doesn’t take chances when it comes to depression and suicide — it’s not a game.
Talouse redesigned the SPAT presentation this spring, made it clearer and easier to understand.
“Facts will get my attention; a personal story will make me bawl my eyes out,” Talouse said.
The facts weren’t new to most of the eighth-graders watching Pacheco’s presentation at Dean Morgan Junior High School in March. Several had heard similar presentations before.
“Who has a gun in their household?” Pacheco asked.
All but a few in the 21-student class raised their hands.
“How many of you know where the ammunition is?”
Six hands remained raised.
Most suicides — 67 percent — are by firearm, Pachecho told the class. Females attempt more, at a ratio of 3-to-1.
“How many of you have been directly affected by suicide — friend or family member killed themselves?”
About five students slowly raised their hands.
Pacheco asked if anyone wanted to share their experience.
“My brother attempted last year, and we didn’t know why,” one boy said.
Another student said he’s tired of talking about it.
Health officials turned to videos, posters, websites — anything — to tell students it’s OK to break promises to suicidal friends and tell an adult help is needed.
Many programs have dropped the public service announcements and invested in programs that connect students with each other and trusted adults.
Several Wyoming high schools adopted Sources of Strength, a national program founded in 1998 in rural and tribal areas of North Dakota.
The program teaches students to spot warning signs for suicide and depression and seek one or more sources of strength: supportive family members, positive friends, mentors, healthy activities, generosity, spirituality, medical access or mental health.
The message: You’re not alone.
Tongue River High School, which lost a student and a former student to suicide in the past three years, started the program in 2010-11.
“We’re trying to establish relationships with kids,” said Pete Kilbride, counselor at Tongue River High School. “We know that’s the single greatest factor for a kid being successful in school.”
The secret to preventing suicide — and it shouldn’t be a secret — is developing a competent community where everyone cares about each other’s welfare and knows how to give help when it’s needed, said Maureen Underwood, a licensed social worker and director of the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide.
Everyone takes responsibility for the well-being of everyone else — recognizes warning signs, offers or suggests help, talks about suicide in a supportive manner.
“If your friend broke his leg and the bone was sticking out, would you try to fix it yourself?” Underwood said. “Why would you try to deal with someone who is suicidal? It’s the same difference.”
Suicide prevention is not required by Wyoming content standards for health instruction. Mental health and suicide are included only in the context of the negative effects of bullying and only at the eighth-grade level. Some school and district anti-bullying programs describe suicide as a dangerous consequence.
A handful of states require teachers to receive suicide prevention instruction. Wyoming does not.
Many health teachers choose to talk about suicide in class, Pacheco said. His group only visits Natrona County schools where teachers and principals have invited them.
The high numbers of suicide attempts warrant more attention, Pacheco said.
“There’s something definitely wrong,” Pacheco said. “We can’t sit on our hands. We’ve got to do something.”