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Morgan High School hopes to curb local suicide rate

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Suicide rates are climbing in Morgan.
This school year, just since August, 10 Morgan youth have attempted suicide, said Morgan High School Counselor Destiny Field.  Last school year, the number was eight.  The year before, there were six “that we know of,” Field said.  “All sorts of attempts are going on that weren’t reported.”
“It is mind-blowing to me,” School Board President Ken Durrant said.  “These are the dark statistics we don’t talk about or address.”
In 2013, according to Weber and Morgan County youth responding to the SHARP survey administered at school, 25.7 percent of sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grade students have felt sad or hopeless.  Of those, 15.5 percent had considered suicide.  Of those, 12.8 percent had made a suicide plan.  Of those, 7.3 percent, or 11,000 youth, had made a suicide attempt, resulting in 3,000 attempts that required medical attention.
In the state, suicide is the No. 1 cause of death for youth ages 10 to 17.  Field said “10 is very young,” but that she had been called to help a Morgan fifth grader having suicidal ideations, saying there was a gun involved and the student wouldn’t be in school the next day.  Stressful life situations are “trickling down to younger and younger ages,” Field said.
Field said it may be surprising to find out who is attempting suicide in Morgan.  “Some are those with straight A’s, a perfectionist complex, who need to toe the line or they will lose out on scholarships.  Just people you wouldn’t suspect,” she said.
In the nation, Utah ranks fifth in the number of suicides per population, Field said.  Interestingly, there are on-going studies linking suicide with high altitudes worldwide, she said.
To counteract the trend, Morgan school officials would like to follow a model first developed in Utah, used by high schools throughout the state and recognized by national organizations: HOPE squad.
“It is always so hush-hush, but this will get people talking about it,” Field said.
Developed by Gregory A. Hudnall, “the state guru on suicide prevention,” Field said, HOPE squad has received the attention of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as an effective community mental health model.  Hudnall is a former principal and assistant superintendent in Utah schools, so “he knows what it is like to be in our shoes here,” Field said.
As a Provo School District employee, Hudnall was asked to identify a student who had committed suicide in a nearby park.  “It broke his heart and made him sick to his stomach, so he started instituting Circles4HOPE in his community,” Field said.  “For 10 years they went without a suicide.  It has been pretty impressive.”
Now being implemented in over 40 high schools throughout Utah, the program has been endorsed by the Utah State Office of Education and the Utah Health Department, Field said.  “They are seeing positive results.”
Morgan already has a legislative-approved grant providing funding for training materials to start the program at Morgan High School, Field said.  “It will get the ball rolling,” she said.  “Our vision is to pull in the community.  The research shows the more community involvement we have, the more success we are going to have at the school.”
“I am glad we are implementing this here in Morgan, that we are addressing it,” Durrant said.
The HOPE squad operates on the idea that students are more likely to tell their peers about suicidal thoughts and plans.  These peer listeners are nominated by their peers to participate in the program, which trains them, informs them of resources their friends can turn to, helps them know how to get in touch with a trusted adult, and provides listeners with support they often need themselves.
“The friends (who listen) are holding the stress on themselves.  They are trying to be the therapist, and talk their friends down,” Field said.  “It is hurting these kids, that if something happens to their friend, it is their fault that they didn’t do enough.”
Adults will screen the participants, Field said.
“This is not a club, but more of a school program,” she said.  “We are looking for peers that are the best listeners.  We will use these kids as the eyes and ears of who we need to check on.  They are our eyes and ears on social media.  The things posted on Instagram blow my mind.  We can’t possibly track all that.”
Field hopes the program will expand to 10-15 students for each grade, advised by five adult advisors.  Nominations could start soon, she said.  Just because a peer is nominated does not mean they have to participate in the HOPE squad.  Parents of those nominated would be informed of the program before their child accepts a position.

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