Michigan schools urged to tackle rising youth suicides: ‘You need a plan’

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to correct that Real Talk is hosted once a year. 

When a young person is lost to suicide, the search for answers often leads to a question: What is being done in K-12 schools to address the problem?

In Michigan, where suicide prevention education for students and training for teachers is not mandatory, the answer is little to nothing.

That's despite the fact that suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people in the state between ages 10 and 24, behind accidents. Youth and young adult suicide rates in Michigan and nationally have been climbing steadily since 2007, and the state outpaced the national rate from 2011 to 2017, figures show.

Inside most high schools, education on suicide consists of posters and pamphlets with toll-free numbers offering help. A few schools organize assemblies with sage speakers that last an hour. Even fewer schools hold mental health weeks that offer coping tips for stressed-out teens.

What's less common — but does exist in one Metro Detroit district — is classroom instruction dedicated exclusively to suicide awareness and prevention. But this week, a small group of Michigan suicide prevention advocates is working to change that by enlisting teachers to bring suicide education into the schools themselves.

On Thursday, a school summit will be held for the first time as part of the fourth annual Kevin's Song Conference on Suicide to teach educators what can be done in K-12 schools to stem the rising tide of suicide among Michigan's young people.

Isabella Monacelli, 14, and Emily Phillips, 16, chat during a visit to 'The Shed.'

The conference, which runs through Saturday at the Inn at St. John's in Plymouth, is organized by Kevin's Song, a Michigan-based suicide awareness and prevention nonprofit.

At the summit, a small group of educators doing suicide prevention work in schools will share their programs, ideas and best practices so other educators, students and parents can start their own programs.

"Some schools are not doing anything. Until there is a suicide in a school, oftentimes it's not seen as a priority," said Gail Urso, co-founder of Kevin's Song. "Our hope is when schools come together and see what other schools are doing, they will get on the ball."

Gail and her husband, John Urso, founded the nonprofit after the death of their son, Kevin, who died by suicide in 2013. 

► READ MORE: Suicide victim's parents work to help others find hope

The Grosse Pointe Park couple has organized 400 health care providers, behavioral health professionals, educators, first responders, loss survivors and suicide prevention advocates for the conference, which is open to the public.

The Ursos say suicide is a public health crisis that needs attention in local communities and in schools. The couple would like it added to the state K-12 curriculum.

"In schools, sex ed is a requirement. There is no requirement to talk about suicide awareness and suicide prevention. Yet, we believe that it should be," John Urso said.

Michigan only has the Chase Edwards Law, which "encourages" schools to provide age-appropriate instruction for students and professional development for staff on the warning signs and risk factors for suicide and depression and the protective factors that help prevent suicide.

Mental health fire drills

Stephanie Lange, a social worker at Dakota High School in Macomb Township, created a 45-minute classroom presentation on suicide awareness and prevention for freshmen, who experience the one-time course during their English class.

Lange, a speaker at the School Summit, says her interactive, game-based program can be duplicated and used by any other school in the state. In fact, she will give it away to any district that wants it.

"I'm at the largest high school in the state with 3,000 students," she said. "If I am able to figure this out in the largest high school in Michigan, nobody has any excuses."

In her class, Lange uses the online platform Kahoot to ask students to take multiple-choice quizzes about suicide and mental health on their smartphones.

Students' answers are anonymously displayed on a screen in class in real time so students and Lange can talk about the results.

"It opens up the door for questions for the classroom to have a discussion," Lange said. "It takes the pulse of the entire classroom. ... We work on stigma and talk about how common mental health issues are."

Another portion of Lange's class is a "mental health fire drill." Lange says she asks students to think about their K-12 experience with fire drills in school.

"I ask them, 'Since you’ve been coming to school, how often do you do a fire drill, why do you go outside, why is it important to do it?'" she said.

"Then we talk about how one in six kids is talking about suicide, but we never talk about this. Probably one of you is going to consider suicide, and we never had a plan in place."

Lange then has the students write down the names of three adults they can talk to about themselves, or a friend who may be thinking about suicide. She also gives them a card with instructions to give an adult who can help someone who's struggling.

"This literally takes 30 seconds of your life," she tells students. "You need a plan; you don’t want to wait until you are in a crisis."

Lake Orion High School students work on making bracelets with positive messages for either themselves or for friends.

Lake Orion Community Schools began addressing the mental health of its students in a more serious way more than a decade ago after at least 11 students and former students died by suicide within a five-year period.

The Oakland County district built a schoolwide mental health approach that reaches across grades, ages, genders and economic status. It hosts an annual event called Real Talk at which students and adult volunteers gather for a day of open dialogue and discussion around mental health.

The district also created the Students Offering Support organization and a Bully Busters program that helps younger students.

Last fall, the district dedicated an entire week to mental health. The program, called U Matter Week, included a day when students discussed signs of depression, how to look for signs that someone is thinking of suicide, what to say to someone in crisis and how to seek help.  

"The idea is to spread mental health awareness among our students by getting the facts out there and giving students tools to support one another, identify when we or others might be in crisis and need help, and get tools to help take care our ourselves and others," district spokesman Mark Snyder said.

Detroit district acts

Suicide rates among African American teens, especially girls, have skyrocketed since 2001, with Michigan having the seventh-highest rate of suicide among African American teens according to a study, "The Changing Characteristics of African American Adolescent Suicides, 2001-2017."

In the Detroit Public Schools Community District, where 82% of students are African American, officials are assembling behavioral and mental health teams for schools as part of a $5 million partnership and pilot program with the University of Michigan and Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network.

Part of the money comes from UM's TRAILS program, which stands for Transforming Research into Action to Improve the Lives of Students. It will fund a dedicated in-school behavioral health team at three high schools — Cody, East English Village Preparatory and Pershing — and at three elementary schools — Dixon, Mason and Ronald Brown.

The team will include a school social worker, counselor, community-based mental health provider/behavioral health therapist and a nurse. Families will have access to screenings and therapy and team staff will be trained in methods to identify behavioral health conditions, respond to mental health crises and use evidence-based strategies to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

District superintendent Nikolai Vitti said teachers have been demanding trauma-informed care for their students and the district can finally address the issue through the grant. Teams should be ready in the spring to start helping students and their families, he said.

"This grant starts the process of building an integrated system of support and care for students where we properly apply real-time screenings, intervention and support on school campuses to our families and students," Vitti said.

Since 2016, the district has hired 63 additional full-time guidance counselors and 44 additional social workers to further support behavioral and mental health services for students.

Vitti said the district has no specific suicide prevention program at the moment but does offer information on warning signs and provides phone numbers to call for help.

Gabriella Monacelli, a senior at Cousino High School in Warren, says teens face stress from school, social media posts and constant questions from adults about their future.

"It's not easy," she said of being a teen."First, there is social media, which is just horrible. Then in high school, you have to worry about what you want to do with your life when you're done and where you want to go to school. You have to worry about your future in those four years and it's a lot of pressure."

People are asking Monacelli all the time what the 18-year-old wants to do with her life after high school.

"And I don't have an answer," she said.

'Culture of safety'

Asked about the state's approach to K-12 suicide prevention education, Michigan superintendent of instruction Michael Rice said schools play a role in creating a safe learning environment for students by maintaining strong anti-bullying policies, partnering with programs, such as OK2SAY, and providing integrated mental health supports.

"Schools can help facilitate a culture of safety, support and engagement with students and families. This will have the largest positive impact," he said. 

Nancy Buyle, a school safety/student assistance consultant with the Macomb Intermediate School District, said organizations like Kevin's Song want to help schools and the public understand the urgent need for suicide prevention education.

"The best way to do that is have suicide prevention," she said. "Schools need people who are willing take on this cause. And I think Kevin's Song has the reach, the clout and the people behind it to do what the schools can't do."

Buyle, who provides suicide education materials to districts in Macomb County, says schools are inundated with demands from the state, but suicide education and prevention can and must be taught.

"We have 300 schools in Macomb County. I can't tell you whether they are doing something formal. I can with great confidence tell you that every counselor and social worker are familiar with suicide prevention and have training."

Teens help each other

Dennis Liegghio's father died by suicide when he was 14, taking away his sense of safety and consistency and leaving him struggling. He struggled with depression and thoughts of suicide for many years.

"I wrote a song to deal with trauma and loss. I wanted to raise awareness to this topic and spread the word," said Liegghio, of St. Clair Shores.

Gabriella Monacelli, 18 and her sister Isabella Monacelli, 14 play a game during a visit to 'The Shed.'

To help teens build resilience and learn life skills in a safe space, Liegghio and his sister, Michelle, opened The Shed, an afterschool activity center in Macomb County where teens can create, connect and confide with each other, and with trusted, caring adults.

"It’s to help them build a sense of connection and purpose. Two strong factors against suicide," he said.

Four teens were at The Shed last week after school, playing foosball, eating popcorn and previewing a film about teens and stress reliance.

The Shed focuses on the arts, music, dance, yoga and cooking. No mental health services are offered, Liegghio said, but the idea is to help teens building a sense of connection and purpose, two strong factors against suicide.

"It's a fun space and that's the point," Liegghio said. "A panel of teenagers (was asked) the biggest issue facing teens and they all said stress. One of them is in seven different clubs. You have to have your life figured out by the time you are in ninth grade, AP classes, extracurricular, sports."

"When do you have time to be a kid? This is a time and a space to be a kid, to have fun, it's safe. It's judgment-free," Liegghio said.

'He seemed great'

Gail and John Urso said their son was 41 years old and living in Florida when he took his own life. Kevin had dealt with depression and Gail and John had just seen him two months before he died, they said.

"He seemed great," said Gail, adding many people who are considering suicide will hide their symptoms and isolate themselves to avoid being a burden to others.

The Ursos said in the last three years they've held the conference, one change they've noticed is teens are more comfortable talking about suicide to each other. It's the adults who need to get on board.

"When our son died in 2013, we had no idea suicide was as prevalent as it was," Gail said. "If we don’t know, there must be a lot of people who don’t know. ... We want to bring more information to the forefront so people can understand it is a public health crisis."

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline — (800) 273-8255. Visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention for additional information. 

Kevin's Song resources

Detroit Public Schools Community District provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, 24 hours a day, at (313) 833-2500.