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Suicide: The stigma, and what schools are doing to combat the problem
SuicideSeries DebbieSmith 3
Debbie Smith, director of student support services for Forsyth County Schools.

FORSYTH COUNTY -- Kristen Vaughan pressed her lips together tightly, trying to hold back tears. Breathing deeply, anger flashed in her eyes as she attempted to speak again, her voice cracking slightly as she steadied her words.

Less than a month earlier, her 15-year-old nephew, Samuel Barrow Jr., had killed himself, and Vaughan was angry.

She wasn’t angry at the teen; rather, it stemmed from the stigma around suicide, the taboo subject no one wants to talk about.

“I can’t deal with this and cope with this when I know [schools] aren’t teaching their kids about it and they’re putting it on the back burner,” Vaughan said. “What [Samuel] went through is put aside and

they’ll do all these memorials for kids who were killed in a car accident or died from cancer, but a kid that was suffering and did this to himself? It’s just ‘Oh, we need to hush about that.’

“The school said to me they didn’t want to ‘encourage’ suicide, to draw attention [to it],” she said. “But I talked to [Samuel’s] friends at that funeral and they said before they knew it was a suicide, a lot of them were suicidal and really confused but after they learned what had happened to him, they said, ‘We’ve got to help our friends. We’ve got to help each other.’”

There is still a stigma, but schools, especially in Forsyth County, are increasingly working to create new policies aimed at suicide prevention, intervention and postvention, and the state has started taking notice.

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“We want to provide them with the skills”

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A former Forsyth County resident, Barrow Jr. had lived in Roswell the last two years and had just begun his sophomore year at Centennial High School, a Fulton County school.

In 2015, the Georgia General Assembly passed House Bill 198, which requires all school systems to provide annual suicide prevention education training to all school system personnel and to adopt a policy on student suicide prevention.

Debbie Smith, director of Forsyth County Schools’ student support services, said even before the bill was passed, the county already had such a plan, and under her direction, FCS will increasingly work to develop the whole child – socially, emotionally and mentally.

“We are going to be working with the state on an initiative to roll out some social-emotional skills,” she said. “Really to deal with at a very young age – my hope is preschool – looking at self-awareness skills, sound decision-making, relationship skills, self-motivation and self-advocacy. A lot of children are not comfortable speaking up for themselves, and we want to teach that at a very young age.”

The school system relies heavily on research from Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck when making and evaluating their policies, Smith said.

Smith said Dweck’s work “deals with the fact that you, as a child, no matter what your circumstances are, it’s your mindset, your decision-making that determines where you can be, and there’s help for you, if you [need] that.

“Research tells us suicide and substance abuse comes from the fact that children feel overwhelmed or there’s no way out, and we want to provide them with the skills to help get past that.”

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“Knowledge is power”

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With suicide ranking as the third leading cause of death in those aged 10 to 24 in Georgia, Sheri McGuinness, president and CEO of the Suicide Prevention Action Network-Georgia, or SPAN-GA, said this kind of education is exactly what children need.

“One of the greatest challenges related to suicide is the stigma and embarrassment that keeps people from reaching out for help,” she said. “We need to be spreading community education about suicide. Knowledge is power and understanding what is in the mind of someone who is suicidal and what it really means to be hopeless, and then starting with an educated conversation around the kitchen table is where we will break this stigma.”

FCS psychologist and prevention specialist Lindsey Simpson said the schools have a suicide prevention video that they show to all certified staff yearly, and the schools provide training to all staff, not just counselors.

But Smith said while FCS has suicide prevention and intervention programs well in hand, she and her team are increasingly focusing on postvention.

“It’s not just right after [a suicide,]” she said, “but going back, four, five, six weeks out is a big piece.”

“It’s considering who all’s involved,” FCS psychologist Kristen McWilliams said. “There are more people involved than just the child affected and their close-knit friends.”

“School connectedness is a big thing,” added Simpson. “I think when kids feel connected, they feel like they have someone in their school they can go to and talk to.”

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What Forsyth County Schools are already doing

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Student support services created a mentoring program for students in FCS at least 15 years ago.

Teachers, community members, religious leaders and others are trained to “provide young people with support, friendship, reinforcement and constructive example.”

“We ask that [mentors] commit to 30 minutes per week for the school year to come in and meet with the child,” Simpson said. “During that time, we ask that it not solely be focused on academics, although sometimes a person wants to help a child with academics, but we strongly encourage just bonding with the child – being an adult friend for them.”

FCS also has nine schools piloting the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, program this year, which aims at developing a classroom culture that addresses potentially problematic behaviors in a positive way.

“We can design our instruction and programs around [making sure] every child has an adult in the school that they can count on and trust,” Smith said. “Different schools are looking at different ways to meet that need, but it is a challenge when we have such large numbers [of students] in our schools, so we have to be creative.”

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“They’ve got to find a safe haven”

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Barrow Jr.’s grandmother, Christy Vaughan, said she hopes other community institutions also begin to talk openly about suicide.

“Society itself has put such a taboo – stigma – on mental illness and suicide especially, not just in young people but within the adult community, that young people are not free within themselves to come out and talk to someone, a lot of times not even their parents,” she said. “I think a lot of the young people are so afraid to reach out to someone, because they’re going to stick them in a [psychiatric hospital] or somewhere.

“We as a community, as mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, have got to find a way to let our young people know that it’s ok to be depressed, it’s ok to not be happy, and it’s ok to say, ‘can I talk to you?’ and know that they’re going to be safe. They’ve got to find a safe haven and until we can find that and give that to them, people will [keep] dying.”