Mental health and suicide are topics a lot of people avoid talking about.
Monday night’s sparsely attended public meeting to kick off a new suicide prevention program in Helena Public Schools was evidence of that.
Only 20 people showed up -- many of them school district staff.
In October, freshmen at Helena High School and Capital High School will be among the first students in the nation to take part in what is considered the world’s leading suicide prevention program for youth.
One parent who spoke up Monday night was Steve. His son, a Helena High School student, killed himself in February. His son was the fifth suicide at Helena High School in the past four years.
To many people, including Steve, his son was happy-go-lucky.
“There was no sign I ever saw,” he said. “When my son did that, I went on a fact-finding mission. I wanted to know who knew.”
Steve learned his son had talked of suicide the past few years with two friends.
“The importance of this program,” Steve said, is for those kids like his son’s friends. “They didn’t know what to do.”
A top priority of the Youth Aware of Mental Health program (YAM) is teaching youth where to go for help in a crisis -- whether they are contemplating suicide themselves or a friend is.
“It’s really sad how many people didn’t come,” said Steve, looking around the empty auditorium. “When you start talking about this subject -- people leave. They don’t want to talk about it. I hope they don’t wake up one day and it happened to them. That’s kind of the price you pay, and that is the possibility.”
“It’s a tough topic,” said another parent. “People run away.”
A major emphasis of YAM is teaching youth mental resiliency through role-playing.
The role-plays are tailored to situations a Montana youth faces, from how to respond to bullying, to how to deal with nasty comments on Facebook, to how to help a troubled friend.
Two of the four trained facilitators -- Elinor Edmunds Miller and Kathy Kinsella Shea -- worked with small groups of CHS and HHS juniors and seniors this summer to tailor the YAM role plays to fit Montana youth.
The other two facilitators are Sara Cease and Jenny Gorsegner, and all four have extensive experience working with youth and mental health issues. And all four received intensive training in YAM this summer.
After a role-play exercise where students are assigned a certain part to act out, the class discusses the role-play, said Dr. Matt Byerly, a psychiatrist who heads up the YAM program in Montana. He is the director of the Center for Mental Health Research and Recovery at Montana State University in Bozeman.
He emphasized the role-plays are not about that particular student, but about the character they are assigned to play.
“They talk about problem-solving and they’re given space to practice,” said Shea.
Some problems are too big for kids to solve on their own, said facilitator Miller, which is why YAM teaches how to find a trusted adult.
It also discusses such things as the difference between between feeling sad and suffering from depression.
The three-week class covers:
- awareness of mental health
- self-help advice
- stress and crisis
- depression and suicidal thoughts
- helping a troubled friend
- getting advice and resources available
In addition to role-plays and discussion sessions, students receive a booklet covering the same material. And the main themes of the program are reinforced in posters.
Although the class deals with hard topics, “it’s not dark or too heavy,” said Byerly. “It is lighthearted in its delivery.”
YAM is being offered at approximately 11 high schools in Montana this year, said Byerly. A colleague of his is also launching YAM in Texas at approximately four to six schools.
Altogether, about 400 HHS freshmen and 330 at CHS are to receive YAM training this year.
In a 2009 study of 11,000 youth in Europe who took the European version of YAM, there was a 59 percent reduction in suicide attempts and a 52 percent reduction in suicidal thoughts, compared to students in a control group.
“It was the largest mental health resilience study ever done,” said Byerly.
The research and results were first published in the 2015 Lancet medical journal.
It’s “extraordinary” to have a program like YAM launching in Montana a year later, said Byerly.
It is designed as a “primary prevention intervention” for youth who have never attempted suicide, added Byerly. Those who have already attempted suicide need more “intensive mental health treatments.”
“It’s worth it if you save just one,” Steve told Byerly and the facilitators. “You don’t have to save 100; just start with one ... and just build on it. Thanks for bringing it here.”
On Tuesday, the school district was emailing permission slips to parents of freshmen students to see if they would consent to have their children take part in anonymous surveys before and after the YAM program that will assess its effectiveness.
All participation in YAM is anonymous, Byerly emphasized.