A number of local schools are incorporating peer-led suicide prevention programs by creating Hope Squads.The program teaches students to look out for signs that their classmates might be struggling, know how to start a conversation with them, and how and when to get further help.

Butler County suicide coalition working to reduce anxiety, deaths for students

County health advocates note that teens aren’t the age group with the most suicides locally — the most prevalent age groups are 33-44 (35 deaths in four years from 2015-18); 55-64 (30 deaths); 25-32 (29 deaths); and 45-54 (also 29 deaths). But officials suspect even among the older groups, social media also may be playing a significant factor when people end their lives.

From 2015 through 2018, 159 people killed themselves in Butler County. Data for 2019 are not yet available.

With social media, says Kristen Smith, a prevention coordinator with Envision Partnerships, people tend to live “curated lives,” where many show only their most positive parts of their lives — beautiful vacation photos, good times with friends — leaving out the negatives.

The relatively new coalition, which started meeting in mid-2018, experienced a breakthrough in December, when four “Hope Squad” students from Lakota West High School and their two advisers attended and gave real-life examples of how social media create drama and trauma in the lives of today’s teenagers.

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Many students live with constant emotional turmoil, said Maddie Armbruster, a prevention coordinator for Envision Partnerships who took notes during the December coalition meeting and could relate to what the Lakota West students said about social media issues.

Armbruster, who graduated from high school in 2015 and since has graduated from Miami University, said a reason for the anxiety is, “when you go home from school, your day’s not over. It continues through Facebook, through Instagram. You’re still with the same people, even when you’re not at school. And you just never get a break to be in your own head. There’s just no break.”

That’s different from the experience of their parents, who when they went home would hang out alone, or with a friend or two, but not surrounded by swirling emotions of many people in their schools, officials say.

In Middletown, which saw a big leap to 12 suicides in 2018 (up from from five in 2015 and six in 2017), the coalition got a sense at recent meetings from people in that city that social media is a concern. Of course, the advocates note, it’s difficult to determine exact causes of suicide, because the victims aren’t alive to explain it.

From Middletown people concerned about the increase in suicides, “we heard from that community what they wanted to focus on, and the voice I heard was social media,” Smith said. “So I think that’s our task.”

Because of concerns about suicides in Middletown, all Middletown Middle School students in coming weeks will be taught how to notice when peers are struggling, and take them to a trusted adult who can get them help. They also will be taught not to keep secrets when friends are considering suicide.

The suicide coalition plans to focus on groups that are more susceptible to suicides, including middle-aged men, veterans, the LBGTQ community and the elderly, who sometimes commit “silent suicide,” even in nursing homes, by stopping eating or drinking. Another front in the battle against suicide is encouraging people to lock up medications, guns and other means people use to kill themselves.

MORE: A hidden surprise, to many: Butler County among state leaders in suicides

Lakota West officials believe their school’s Hope Squad, made up of about 73 students who are chosen by their peers — not by teachers or administrators — has been successful in helping fellow students cope with emotional issues. Other members of the suicide coalition appreciated what the students told them, and invited them to keep attending quarterly meetings, the next one on March 12, from 3-4:30 p.m. at Envision Partnerships’ offices.

“Our students are not trained to be therapists,” said Katie Nichol, a teacher and Hope Squad adviser with Trisha Becker at the school. “They are trained to be the eyes and ears of their peers, and to see warning signs within their peers, to then guide them in the right direction, whether that is just to have a conversation and be a vent outlet, or ‘Hey, let me walk you down to the guidance, and we can find help together.’”

Hope Squad students also take other steps to encourage healthy lifestyles, such as offering Yoga classes during Hope week, passing out Lifesavers candies and high-fives to students as they arrive at school, and placing positive messages on their lockers, Nichol said. When a student committed suicide at Turpin High School east of Cincinnati last school year, some Lakota West Hope Squad students went there to support students there, she said.

Brandon Stanfill, director of student services for the Hamilton City School District, said he isn’t sure whether students need more emotional help than they did a decade or two ago. But now, more is known about childhood depression and issues students are facing, he said.

Hamilton schools are working with MindPeace, an organization that connects districts with licensed therapists for each of their school buildings. And before this school year started, all district staff received training on “trauma-informed care” to help them identify people who are struggling.

“We’re not asking our teachers to fix this issue,” Stanfill said. “We’re asking them to be able to recognize this issue so we can make sure that when it’s appropriate we can get a child to support sooner.”

Nationally, “there’s definitely been a rise in teenage suicides,” Stanfill said. “We’ve been blessed that hasn’t impacted us, but you can’t rule anything out. Safety’s our number one priority.”

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