Teen suicides shed light on ways schools try to help their students heal

Teen suicides shed light on ways schools try to help their students heal (Photo: Hakim Fobia / USDA)

GRAND HAVEN, Mich. (NEWSCHANNEL 3) - Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teens 15- to 19-years-old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Newschannel 3's Anna Giles explains several recent teen suicides in West Michigan are shedding light on the difficulties schools face trying to help their students heal.

Bellevue High School senior Hunter Bailey took his own life just weeks before he turned 17.

Students wrote messages to Bailey on the lamppost next to his parking spot at school and hundreds of people attended a vigil in his honor.

The peaceful gatherings became protests after school administrators decided to paint over messages left by students.

The superintendent said he was worried about a copycat suicide.

Grand Haven High School Principal Tracy Wilson said, “People are afraid to broach the conversation of mental health, depression, anxiety and most certainly the word suicide."

The issue is familiar to Wilson, who lost her father to suicide 21 years ago and takes a proactive approach to crisis response after a student suicide.

She said, "You have to get to a place where you are ok never, not today, not tomorrow, but never getting the answer to why."

There have been seven suicides at Grand Haven High School in the last six years.

Wilson said each case required a different timeline for when the schools reached out to the student’s parents and then made other students aware of what happened.

Wilson says sometimes she struggles to get a hold of parents and many are hesitant to release details and is focused on prevention, implementing a method known as Question, Persuade, Refer or QPR.

The process meant to help students feel comfortable talking about their mental health.

Wilson said, "West Michigan, and specifically Grand Haven, are communities that are very conservative so it was not a conversation that was embraced by a lot of people and people felt uncomfortable"

She said parents came around, many asking for more training.

Kalamazoo Suicide Grief Therapist Cindy Scoval has counseled people who lost family members to the illness. She agrees with Wilson's approach.

Scoval said, "When we're looking at adolescents we need to remember that their peer group is often the primary source of support in their life."

According to a 2011 report by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, "A school's goal should be to balance the students' need to grieve with the goal of limiting the risk of inadvertently glamorizing the death."

The report goes on to say that in the case of suicide, schools must consider how to appropriately memorialize the student who died without risking suicide contagion among other students.

"They could use whatever word they felt, so there's faith, hope."

At Grand Haven High School students can mourn the death of one of their peers by placing a stone in this rock garden marked with a word representing healing.

Wilson said, "We do know that our efforts are helping but we know that we are not reaching everyone all the time and that's the most disheartening part of it."

Not all memorials turn out so well. After messages to Hunter Bailey was painted over at Bellevue High followed by protests the students father told said, "I think administrators need to respect the students and their communities when they express something so important to them. Help them get through it, not just rule over them."

"As a survivor if you can help just one person it's all worth it."

Wilson hopes other high schools will be proactive if a student death by suicide occurs.

She said you never know what conversation, even just a simple hello, might make a difference.

For a list of suicide prevention resources, click here.

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