UW Forefront Suicide Prevention Program in the Schools

  • Written by David B. Clark

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages10 to 24 in the state of Washington. On average, two young people in Washington state fall to suicide every week; 17 more are hospitalized for attempting to end their own lives. We live in a time when mental health awareness is at an all-time high but only because the torments of anxiety, depression, and addiction have skyrocketed. Thanks to legislation that was enacted in 2013, school safety plans got a much needed booster shot concerning mental health and suicide awareness. As the problem continued its steady push putting more kids at risk, it became vividly apparent that protocol concerning how to handle these daily emergencies in the classroom was as vital as knowing the location of a fire exit.

The University of Washington’s Forefront Suicide Prevention in the Schools (FIS) was formed to support Washington high schools with the task of creating a comprehensive approach to mental health promotion and suicide prevention. The program utilizes on-going training and consultations to foster an environment that destigmatizes mental health issues. The model sets six-to-eight member multi-disciplinary teams of parents, administrators, counselors, and teachers to lead things like behavioral health and awareness weeks and peer-led trainings. The program, which runs for three years, is now in its second cohort of schools (2017-2020) while the first cohort wrapped concluding in 2018. Woodinville High School (WHS) was among 12 other schools that proudly participated in the first FIS cohort.

Theatre teacher and dean of students at WHS, Josh Butchart, was heavily involved in getting FIS involved at the high school. Butchart, who has been an educator for 15 years, shared that the school has seen a significant increase in students who are willing to talk about their struggles with suicide. He commented on students speaking up when they were worried about each other and not just themselves. “Students routinely bring their own mental health concerns to their counselors and they seem much more willing to share with their peers since we began FIS,” said Butchart.

Butchart said that the mental health specialists for which Principal Kurt Criscione and the Parent Teacher Student Association “bent over backwards to find funding” has been an enormous help. He said that they were essential for developing the practices and protocols that WHS now uses. “Criscione realized the profound need we had for mental health specialists and has made that staffing and our work with FIS paramount over the past four years,” said Butchart.

Butchart went on to explain how the framework FIS has standardized in their process really aided the WHS’s staff becoming aligned with talking about suicide comprehensively. WHS has held an annual suicide prevention training for its staff each of the last four years. Furthermore, the support and guidance of FIS allowed for suicide prevention training to specific groups of students and parents over the last two years. “The model is both accessible and pragmatic, designed with educators in mind” said Butchart. The cohort of the schools—those 13 involved in the first round—worked as a network of resources, sharing best practices, ways to support, and even methods on how to respond to suicide or attempted suicide.

Butchart believes that the teacher training has established a positive culture of support and openness for the entire staff. “It has gotten all of the staff on board with being open to talking about suicide, how to handle a situation with a student who is thinking about suicide, and following protocols to best serve our students,” said Butchart.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has shown the suicide rate among youths has steadily risen in both the country and in the state of Washington. Moreover, Washington’s youth suicide rate is slightly higher than the national average. The vision is that these better protocols, a focus on strengthening programs that will last, and a collective ability to destigmatize mental illness will allow those heartbreaking numbers to become only statistics of the past. The data providing reference to where we have come from and how much more work we have to do to better ensure more equitable mental health education and resources for the generations to come.

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