Dubuque school district creates suicide prevention coalition to address students’ brain health needs

Published: Apr. 11, 2022 at 10:42 PM CDT
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DUBUQUE, Iowa (KCRG) - The Dubuque Community School District has put together a suicide prevention coalition with the goal of examining the district’s current policies when it comes to students dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts. District officials say they are doing this after hearing from school counselors about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on students’ mental health.

The suicide prevention coalition is comprised of 15 members, including district staff, principals, school resource officers, and mental health professionals. Shirley Horstman, the district’s executive director of student services, said it has been around a decade since the last time the district reviewed these policies.

“It is pretty important that we look at some of those past practices and make sure that everything is aligned to the research,” she mentioned.

Horstman explained recent studies have shown there is a crucial need to address brain health issues in students, particularly in teenagers. She pointed at studies that say suicide is the second leading cause of death in teens ages 15 to 19. She also mentioned recent studies show that 20 percent of teens suffer some sort of brain health issue.

“Wherever the nation’s statistics are, usually in Dubuque we follow,” she added.

The coalition will look at how the district can better address prevention and intervention when it comes to students dealing with suicidal thoughts and if current policies need to be enhanced.

“If a student were to say, ‘Life is not worth living’ or if they were to write an essay that is really dark and really kind of hopeless, there would always be interventions that would happen,” Horstman mentioned. “The teacher would refer them to a school counselor, the school counselor would talk to the student, contact the parents and then whatever additional steps needed to happen would happen. All of those things are being looked at to say, ‘Do we have enough protocol in place?’”

Horstman said they will also examine appropriate suicide prevention curriculum for students and necessary training for staff. The final component of the study is finding ways to better engage with the community.

She said the district has learned from new research they need to focus on something called “postvention”, or what happens after a student dies by suicide.

”How do we reach the friends that are grieving? How do we reach other students who might be at risk and really try to put supports around them so that we do not have additional suicides?,” she commented.

Blair Birkett works as a mental health therapist at the new Covenant Family Solutions clinic in Dubuque. She told TV9 she was working in Des Moines schools through the pandemic and saw firsthand the impact it had on students’ brain health.

“We noticed a lot of apprehension for kids coming back to school, a lot of social anxiety, a lot of performance anxiety,” she pointed out. “ Adults typically have a lot more resources that they can fall back on. Kids not so much, especially when it comes to mental health needs.”

She emphasized the importance of school districts taking the time to review their brain health protocols to make sure they are serving their students in the appropriate manner.

“There has been more acknowledgment of mental health, so, in some aspect, post-pandemic that has been a plus,” she said. “A lot of the issues that were there pre-pandemic have increased a lot post-pandemic.”

The district’s suicide prevention coalition will hold three meetings this year. Horstman said the goal is to have a manual ready by the end of this school year to present to the school board.

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