Schools talk about mental health concerns

Published 9:11 pm Thursday, February 22, 2018

Suffolk Public Schools is partnering with the Sarah Michelle Peterson Foundation in a new, division-wide initiative to raise awareness of mental health concerns among students.

The plan is to start the conversation with faculty, parents and teens that will educate them on the warning signs they may see and challenge the stigma surrounding depression. This includes a video for 10th-graders in the school division and three community presentations on the topic of mental health, anxiety and depression featuring the same video.

About a dozen parents and individuals involved in local youth organizations came to King’s Fork High School Wednesday evening for the first presentation featuring the video “More than Sad: Teen Depression” by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

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The presentation was conducted by Michelle Peterson, who founded the Sarah Michelle Peterson Foundation with her husband, Eric, in honor of their 15-year-old daughter, who died by suicide in January 2014.

“We need to not be afraid to speak about suicide directly to people that concern us,” Peterson said. “When we see warning signs, we need to proceed to have a safe conversation.”

The video is designed to help students and parents recognize the signs of depression and encourage asking for help when it’s seen in their children, students, peers or themselves. Peterson explained not only how to ask for help but also how to approach conversations about depression and suicide as an adult.

“A lot of times, adults don’t know what to say or what to look for, and I think this is going to help,” said Suzanne Rice, assistant superintendent for student services.

The Centers for Disease Control conducts the national Youth Risk Behavior Survey every two years for ninth- to 12th-graders in public and private schools. The latest results in 2015 showed that 17.7 percent of students reported having seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous year.

Furthermore, 14.6 percent reported having made a plan to attempt suicide in the previous year, and 8.6 percent reported to have attempted one or more times in that span.

“Threat assessments take place in our school when students threaten to harm themselves or others, and that for a fact has increased,” Rice said. “I can’t give you a number on that, but I do see it on a weekly basis — even at the elementary level — where kids are threatening to harm or kill themselves.”

Peterson stressed that depression is an illness, not a weakness or something that can be changed at will. It needs to be treated with positive mood-enhancers like exercise or changes in diet, and with therapy and medication if deemed necessary, she said.

Lourdes Soto has children that go to school in Suffolk. She said the presentation was great education for parents and children alike.

“This a great way for everyone to help everyone,” she said.

Peterson hopes that each following presentation brings a bigger turnout from the community, whether they’re parents, school faculty or others that are involved in youth activities.

“We want the adults in our kids’ lives to be looking out for them with us, because we can’t do this alone. We have to do this as a community,” she said.

Community presentations will be held at March 1 at Nansemond River High School and at 6:30 p.m. March 14 at Lakeland High School. Call 925-6752 for more information.