Jefferson County Public Schools have implemented many mental health resources for students in recent years. The Colorado school district has set out to do more, to stem rising rates of suicide and suicidal crisis among its students.
“It's not just a high school problem any longer. We're seeing it in our middle schools. We're seeing it with girls, not just boys. So we're seeing a trend nationwide, not just in Jefferson County, that's very concerning,” said Michelle Gonzales, the suicide prevention coordinator for Jeffco schools.
The district has launched an ambitious plan to train all 14,000 of its staff members in suicide prevention in the coming years, and has also hosted training for parents and people in the community.
“We are invested in creating a county where everybody is educated and equipped and empowered to know what to do,” said Gonzales.
Gonzales said much of the district’s comprehensive plan for suicide prevention has sprung from a toolkit put together by experts in Palo Alto, California, home of Stanford University.
One of those experts is Dr. Shashank Joshi, a professor of psychiatry, pediatrics and education at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Joshi has taken his community’s toolkit on the road, training everywhere from Jeffco to Pakistan to Mexico.
“What I was most impressed with Jeffco about was, they were not hiding from this.
They fully embraced, we're doing a lot, but we could do more. Let's bring in people who've had experience in their communities and see if we can learn from one another,” Joshi said.
The experience in Dr. Joshi’s community of Palo Alto has been one of learning through loss. The community experienced two clusters of youth suicide deaths in less than ten years, prompting experts to develop strategies for schools to use for prevention.
The toolkit has three main areas of emphasis: promoting mental health and wellness, intervention when students are in crisis, and postvention - the response after a suicide loss.
“The idea [is] you would increase the versatility of the classroom teachers, not to become therapists, but just to have more tools in their box. So that if they're concerned about a student they would not be concerned or afraid to open the door to a conversation to try to find out what that young person might be struggling with,” Joshi said.