Police, school officials, and crisis support leaders are among many working side-by-side in an effort to prevent the spread of what’s been deemed a suicide contagion among Stark County children.
In this school year alone, Perry Local Schools have lost 6 current or past students as a result of suicide.
Superintendent Scott Beatty explained that the culture has turned very dark, “Obviously it is very sad, and I think with so much uncertainty, a sense of fear. It would be so much easier if there was a clear cause and effect. You can then bring an end to these tragedies.”
He added, “Our hearts are broken over the recent passing of several of our students. As staff, we are devastated.”
Superintendent Beatty explained that the district has taken immediate steps to better educate students and bring awareness to resources available to those considering suicide.
“Although it sometimes may feel so, we are not alone in dealing with this crisis. Please know, our district is working hard to provide preventive information and intervention support,” said Beatty. Programs he noted include:
- Extensive counseling services to students and staff members.
- The implementation of the national, evidence-based, SOS: Signs of Suicide program to all staff members to help them recognize the warning signs to keep kids safe.
- The availability of both a mobile crisis team at each building, as well as a district crisis team.
- The rollout of a Trauma Resiliency and Education Committee Pilot Program to ensure all staff members are trauma-informed and trauma-aware.
Overall, Beatty stressed that the situation is critical and that the safety and well-being of the district’s students remains a top priority.
“As a district, we understand that the students are facing MANY difficult situations. Those situations include mental health issues, poverty, relationships with peers, depression and drug use,” he said. “We will continue to remain available to all students at all hours and provide them with the resources they need to cope with situations they are facing.”
The Perry Township Police Department is working closely with the school district and Chief Mike Pomesky explained this problem will take the cooperation and dedication of all leaders throughout the community.
“It’s all of our obligation to step forward and work as a team,” said Pomesky.
He noted that following a press conference earlier this month they have seen a dramatic increase in the number of calls to a variety of county-wide resources for those considering suicide.
Pomesky stressed, however; he’s hopeful family members will continue to step up even more when they suspect things may be going on with a loved one.
“We can do that in a confidential setting to get people channeled for help,” he explained.
As a clear-cut cause for what’s sending the youth in the area to choose suicide as a primary solution in dealing with stress and other emotions, that is still unknown.
“In a lot of these cases we’re seeing multiple different factors pop up and it’s taking some time because obviously there’s a lot of electronic evidence we have to go through,” said Pomesky. “But we go through those things and we look at it and we identify factors and work with counselors that will be successful in these cases to decrease this problem.”
Among the counseling services working closely with the school district and the police department is the Crisis Intervention Center in Canton.
Carol Vesley is a crisis counselor and is asking the public to understand that there isn’t any single cause that leads someone to commit suicide.
“This could be a combination of any stressors youth are dealing with,” she said.
She outlined that any kind of relationship problem; be it romantic, friendships, or even family relationships, are key factors to pushing a child to feel as though they can’t go on.
“Peer relationships and families are the best support for youth. So, when there are problems in either of those areas parents really need to put their antennas up to start identifying what’s going on with [their] child,” she said.
Vesley noted, however; almost anything can become a stressor.
She pointed to a variety of possibilities including testing, identity issues, peer acceptance, physical appearance, decisions they are forced to make, school-related issues such as extracurriculars or academic success.
“Just about anything that a youngster is dealing with today could become a stressor,” explained Vesley. “And that is why this is so problematic. “We adults don’t recognize or perceive how some of those stressors can be almost life or death stressors for young people who are struggling.”
Social media and bullying, she noted, also can play a key role in leading to a child’s unhappiness. Although, in the suicides in Perry Township specifically, police have said bullying was not a factor.
So, how do you as a parent, prevent suicidal thoughts in your child?
“To truly [practice] suicide prevention we need to help youth address stressors as they surface,” said Vesley. “Because, as each of these stressors pops up, if young people don’t address them they start layering on top of each other. And from that standpoint, that festering can get them to a point where they feel they are out of control. Hopeless, helpless, worthless.”
“Young people from elementary on, obviously don’t have the coping skills, the stress management skills or the problem-solving skills,” she added.
She encouraged parents and guardians to work hard to be in tune with the different aspects of the child’s life.
Although a difficult conversation, Vesley explained this is the time when parents also need to directly address suicide.
“And I know some parents believe if I talk about suicide I’m going to put it in my child’s head, that is not the case,” said Vesley. “Get a comfortable situation going where the parent has the undivided attention of the young person and start the discussion about suicide.”
Vesley said a way to start that conversation may be simply to say ‘Do you know anybody who has suicidal thoughts,’ or ‘With all the suicides that have occurred, what are your friends saying, how are you feeling about it all?’
But overall, she explained, “The parent needs to get to the question, ‘Have you ever thought about it? The day a person takes his or her own life is not the first time they’ve thought about it.”
She encourages conversations about suicide to begin with children as young as 10 or 11-years-old.
Parents are also asked to be aware of warning sides which include:
- Behavior changes.
- Withdraw and isolation.
- Eating and sleeping changes.
- Mood changes.
- Risky behavior.
- Secretive behavior.
- Putting ‘their lives in order,’ or giving personal belongings away.
Vesley added that research and statistics are showing that suicide has become a primary option for young people. She has deemed the number of suicides in Stark County recently as a suicide contagion.
“It is not a physical passing on, but a psychological passing on of an illness,” she said. “And, that illness is a feeling that life is not worth living, some emotional despair is there leading that person to think, ‘I’d rather be dead.’ So, contagion says that things are spreading.”
She added that investigators know when a contagion hits it causes spreading of a psychological issue, but they don’t know where it starts or in what atmosphere it spreads.
All officials involved are encouraging people to reach out for help and information to find a solution and prevent any more lives lost.
Michaela Madison Reporting
Full Interview with Carol Vesley at the Crisis Intervention Center: