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Following two suicides of Elmbrook School District students this year, the district and others have begun to address more comprehensively issues surrounding student mental health.

Elmbrook Director of Special Education Tanya Fredrich has been hard at work in recent weeks. One of the products of that effort will be a presentation on the prevalence of suicide in today's society that was to be given at Wednesday's Teaching and Learning Committee meeting.

"Prevalence is important for us to look at," Fredrich said. "We continue to see increases in trends in the amount of youth that are reporting that they are struggling with anxiety and coping with all of the stressers in life. The Elmbrook community is no different."

With a few weeks having passed since the district experienced its second suicide this year, in January, Fredrich says that it is appropriate to start talking about the issue on a larger scale.

In the immediate aftermath of January's tragedy, the district offered counseling services and other accommodations, such as rescheduling exams, to its students, but Fredrich says that the district wanted to proceed with caution because research shows that mishandling of a suicide can be detrimental.

"One of the things that people worry about is this romanticized version of suicide. There are so many emotions that go along with loss," Fredrich said. "There are other people in the community, whether they're students or families, who are probably dealing with similar situations that we're unaware of. We want to be conscientious of what others might be going through."

Signs of Suicide

Elmbrook already offers a suicide and depression awareness course in its curriculum called Signs of Suicide.

"Signs of Suicide is a suicide prevention curriculum, and it gives students and adolescents concrete information so that they have this in their repertoire when they maybe see signs in their friends or peers," Fredrich said. "We know a lot of times students will express their angst and their feelings maybe to a best friend or they might put it on social media. We want kids to know how to respond to that either when they see it or when they're feeling that themselves."

Signs of Suicide is built into Elmbrook's seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade curricula. The district also offers booster sessions throughout the year to give them resources and to act as a refresher course. This year, Elmbrook has made an effort to expand the distribution of that knowledge.

"This year is the first year that we've made a very pointed effort to get that information into the hands of families so that they can engage in those conversations with their kids," Fredrich said.

Let's talk

The school district is not alone in its effort to expand awareness and the fight against teen suicide.

On Feb. 2, St. John Vianney Director of Youth Ministry Claire Hoffmeyer and Elmbrook parent Jenny Heckman, a therapist in Brookfield, welcomed parents at the church for a talk about the issue.

"This is an uncomfortable topic to talk about in our culture, but it's something that we need to talk about," Hoffmeyer said. "It is important that every person knows and values their own worth and dignity."

Heckman provided a powerpoint presentation for parents to begin the evening, and Hoffmeyer had parents split into smaller groups to talk about the topic.

"We had about 40 parents attend," Hoffmeyer said. "We are hoping to continue to provide a forum for parents to talk about the issue as we move forward."

Next steps

In addition to their existing resources, Fredrich says that she and her colleagues are working to take further steps in addressing the issue.

Elmbrook has reached out to other organizations, including other school districts.

"We have a couple different avenues that we're exploring right now," Fredrich said. "There's some additional trainings that are offered that different districts that are a little bit ahead of us on this journey have embarked on."

One of those avenues is called Mental Health First Aid, an eight-hour training program.

"That one has more of a bigger umbrella. It doesn't deal with just suicide, it deals with a lot of the layers of mental health and how an issue might manifest itself," Fredrich said.

Programs like Mental Health First Aid and the Gatekeeper course from QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) — a suicide prevention program — are short-term avenues that Elmbrook is considering adding to its methods, but Fredrich says that the district also hopes to make some long-term changes.

Long-term solutions

"When we look at our community, we are looking at how are we promoting kids' social and emotional learning," Fredrich said. "We have a really strong handle on academics, but when we talk to some of our counterparts in other districts, one of the things we hear is to teach our kids about being able to be resilient and coping."

Efforts like those of Hoffmeyer and Heckman at St. John Vianney are the kinds of things that Fredrich thinks could go a long way in making a difference.

"I think our community has to have a deeper conversation about what is the role of family and school and community in thinking about this," Fredrich said. "In the months to come, I think we have to get the community going."

Fredrich particularly noted that it is important for Elmbrook and its neighbors and families to stay the course and not become complacent in responding to the issue.

"As families start to heal, it's normal for us to kind of normalize back to the way things have been. It's really important that we keep this conversation going," Fredrich said. "As a school district we know that we play a role in this, but it really has to be a community-wide approach. We have to keep having this conversation. We're really just starting."

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