After multiple student suicides devastated the nearby residents of Schenectady several years ago, Amsterdam teachers and health care professionals decided it was time to get proactive. Their own Capital District community had lost a student to suicide about eight years before.
They formed a suicide prevention task force, and sent out information packets to staff, parents and community and religious leaders. About 50 people came to their first meeting.
"We wanted to do something to help our district. We just want to keep all students safe," said Holly Dargush, a social worker and member of the Amsterdam Teachers Association.
Suicide remains one of the leading causes of death for young people ages 15 to 24, according to the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH). In New York state, more than 150,000 teenagers will attempt suicide annually, and approximately 70 will die, reports the New York State Office of Mental Health.
Peter Wyman is a University of Rochester researcher in the psychiatry department who specializes in suicide prevention. After delivering a talk in Amsterdam, he tapped the district to join schools in New York, Georgia and North Dakota to pilot Sources of Strength (SOS), a suicide prevention program that helps students create and, then utilize, support networks.
"Sources of Strength shows the importance of adult mentors and the adult-youth relationships. It stresses the impact training, support and empowerment can have on adults and youth and the valuable role of social messaging about hope, help and strength," said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira.
The program was created in 1998 by Mark LoMurray of North Dakota who grew concerned about the high rate of suicides among tribal youth. Sources of Strength differs from traditional mental health programs, relying on adult-supported, student peer leaders who help other students cope with emotional stress and depression through friendship networks.
The University of Rochester is now conducting a five-year SOS study supported by a $2.9 million grant from NIMH. With 19 New York high schools implementing the program, including schools in the Capital District, central New York and the Southern Tier, the state Office of Mental Health is also helping to fund Wyman's research. All told, about 14,000 students are involved.
Pat Breux, director of OMH's Suicide Prevention Center of New York, said Wyman's research already has shown that students most likely to struggle with thoughts of suicide are often isolated and disconnected from caring adults in school. "They are the least likely to trust that adults can help," she said.
Having access to medical and mental health services, family support, positive friends, mentors, healthy activities and spiritual connections can spell the difference.
"NYSUT regularly assists members by providing training in mental health issues, and resources such as a recent workshop on Suicide Prevention presented by OMH at the NYSUT Health Care Professionals Conference,"said Kathleen Donahue, NYSUT vice president.
Elmira Free Academy health education teacher Laura Davis, a member of the Elmira TA, embraced Sources of Strength after her school joined the program.
She said the mental health unit in her class covers stress management, bullying, violence prevention, and emotional and mental health, but it's limited to less than two weeks. It's a one-shot deal, and only those taking the class receive the information.
Sources of Strength, she said, "is a program that saturates the whole school." To get started, teachers chose students from each class who had the potential to become peer leaders.
"The point is to get inside as many social circles as possible," Davis said. Forty-six students agreed to participate and received four hours of peer leader training from SOS founder LoMurray. They met regularly with adult advisors from the school and a team of health teachers from the middle, high and alternative schools.
Each peer leader was asked to identify and then contact trusted adults in their lives — someone they would go to with a serious problem — and then encourage friends to name and contact their trusted adult.
Peer leaders also created videos, posters, public service announcements and conducted classroom presentations to promote "Hope, Help, Strength" messages to teach other teens how to handle stress and tough times.
They also helped advisors with a confidential and anonymous student survey assessing how students cope with stress and how they connect with adults.
In Amsterdam, the Sources of Strength team — guidance counselors Alice Decker and Jill Custer, social workers Holly Dargush and Maura Dargush, ESL teacher Melissa Franzoy and social studies teacher Kevin Willary, all members of the Amsterdam TA — got started in similar fashion last September.
When they asked for peer leaders, they, too, made sure teachers were not just tapping students who outwardly excel.
"The idea with SOS is you don't want any one group to feel isolated," said Custer.
After training, peer leaders presented their trusted adults with cards to let them know they are "go-to" sources. Then they tagged a friend, telling them about SOS and challenging them to name their trusted adults. The Amsterdam team crafted a giant tree out of construction paper, each leaf carrying the name of a trusted adult.
At the end of the academic year, SOS schools hosted parties, carnivals and events as part of a week of awareness activities. The concept is for students to see the circle of trusted adults who are in their lives and spend time with them.
Students are also taught to "break the code of silence" if they know a friend is at risk, Custer said.
"We teach them to ACT: Acknowledge, Care, Tell," said Davis.
Since SOS began, Custer said a student came in worried about a friend who indicated she might harm herself. Custer contacted the family and helped them find counseling.
"I see a lot more kids coming in and saying, 'I need to talk to someone,'" said Holly Dargush.