Debi Lewis is working to ensure Utah's school counselors join mental health counselors to become better equipped to identify and help the state's students struggling with thoughts of suicide. Lewis, formerly head counselor at West Jordan Middle School, began work as the suicide prevention specialist July 15 at the Utah State Office of Education.
Both the Utah State Office of Education and the Department of Human Services have hired suicide prevention coordinators, as directed by legislative action during the 2013 session. Kimberly Myers, who most recently managed the prevention by design program for the National Alliance on Mental Illness — Utah, filled the Department of Human Services position in mid June.
The two offices are now coordinating their efforts.
"We can see that together we're going to make a bigger impact than if we try and do it alone," Lewis said. "We want to help kids. We want them to realize that there are alternatives, there is hope out there and we're willing to be their advocates."
She said research supports the theory that if a student can feel connected to just one teacher or administrator or counselor at their school, they are less likely to attempt or complete suicide. The key is education and coordination.
"Our goal is to not have one more student die by suicide," Lewis said. "That's a huge lofty goal, so the beginning point is we have got to start educating teachers, parents, students and communities that these are the warning signs, this is what we do, here are the community resources."
Hellewell said she would love to see more information provided in schools, both on suicide and mental illness. She said it can be difficult as a parent to know the difference between typical teenage moodiness and hormones and mental illness.
More difficult still is to realize your child has suicidal thoughts. Hellewell said Jason took his life at 24 but started talking about suicide at 16. Education about suicide and mental illness would have been really helpful, she said.
Now, she manages her loss through those support groups and helping others, especially in the first two years after losing a loved one to suicide.
"It's really helpful to give back," Hellewell said. "Those first two years are just a nightmare. So to be able to help them realize that you're doing OK, it's one day at a time, one hour at a time, sometimes that's all you can handle that makes you feel good that you can help others that are dealing with the same thing."
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