Local foundation’s in-school program teaches children, parents about suicide prevention | #schoolsaftey

Meagan Berger, 42, has spent over 19 years working in education. 

As a classroom teacher, she’s seen countless students struggle with mental health problems. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she became aware of suicidal thoughts among her students. 

“I felt as if I was counseling, teaching, reteaching and playing catch up all at the same time, while educating parents, as well, all during a pandemic,” Berger said. 

Following the pandemic, American children have experienced an increase in stress, fear, anxiety, depression and loneliness, according to a study in the National Library of Medicine. 

Seeing an increasing need for mental health and suicide awareness, Berger decided to enroll in graduate school in 2020 and become a school counselor. 

“When I stopped to reflect on my true calling, I decided that building relationships, mental health and counseling were my strengths, aside from curriculum and data,” she said.

Now, Berger serves as a counselor and Hope Squad adviser at Donna Shepard Leadership Academy, where’s she’s helping students prevent suicide among their peers and navigating parents’ concerns. 

Founded in 2004, Hope Squad is a school-based peer program that trains students, who are nominated by their peers, to report to adults any student who is struggling or at-risk for suicide. 

What are warning signs of suicide that the Hope Squad looks out for?

  1. Unexplained changes in attitude or behavior – If a student who’s normally neat, tidy or on time, begins to act differently without reasonable explanation, or if a student who is normally happy suddenly begins feeling sad or isolating themselves
  2. Triggering trauma – sudden deaths in the family, loss of jobs, parental divorce
  3. Comments alluding to suicide – I feel like I don’t belong, I wish I wasn’t here, I don’t want to deal with this stuff ever again, etc.

As of Sept. 8, 12 people aged 18 years and younger have died from suicide in Tarrant County, according to the Tarrant County Medical Examiner

How many Tarrant County residents aged 18 years and younger have died from suicide in the past five years?

  • 2022: 27 
  • 2021: 25
  • 2020: 27
  • 2019: 28
  • 2018: 14

(Source | Tarrant County Medical Examiner)

Hope Squad was brought to North Texas by the Jordan Elizabeth Harris Foundation, a Fort Worth-based suicide prevention training and education organization. White Settlement ISD was the first school district in the region to implement the program. 

The foundation was established in 2014 by Tom and Ellen Harris after their daughter Jordan Elizabeth Harris died from suicide in March 2012.

The Jordan Elizabeth Harris Foundation also hosts its “QPR” suicide prevention training for community members of all ages and its annual Light the Trail bike ride for awareness. The 1,800-mile ride connects riders with community members in each city along the route, providing educational opportunities and resources for suicide prevention. 

High schools must commit to the The Hope Squad for four years with a $2,000 annual cost. The program is currently established at 92 schools in Tarrant County. 

But it hasn’t been smooth sailing for the Jordan Elizabeth Harris Foundation to establish the program throughout North Texas.

Navigating challenges

Amid the support, misconceptions about suicide prevention can be challenging, Matthew Vereecke, CEO of the Jordan Elizabeth Harris Foundation said. 

“There are some that say if you talk about suicide, it’ll be contagious and cause students to attempt on their lives,” Vereecke said. 

When presenting to parents for the first time, the foundation ensures it’s not trying to turn kids into counselors. Suicide is presented as a topic about which kids are already aware, Vereecke said. 

Pushback also has been fueled by the passing of Senate Bill 9 in Texas, which requires school districts to make available to parents all curriculum materials relating to the prevention of child abuse, family violence, dating violence, suicide and sex trafficking. 

While parents don’t have to consent to having a Hope Squad at their children’s schools,  each child who is nominated must receive parent or guardian consent. The bill has tricky language to navigate, Kristi Wiley, director of programs with the Jordan Elizabeth Harris Foundation, said.

“It’s important that we’re talking to our kids about mental health,” Wiley said. “At the end of the day for us, it’s all about providing hope.” 

‘Creating a safe enough space’

As a parent, Berger recognizes parents’ concerns about suicide prevention, but she tries to guide those with questions. 

“We are finding that parents can be hesitant at first, but then once they realize it is a fun and engaging experience for their child and others, they tend to love it,” she said. 

For Berger, it was important to get her daughter Kaylee involved in the program at her school, Mansfield High School.  She lets her daughter know she’s not responsible for another child, but that she should always seek help when someone needs it, Berger said. 

As for Kaylee, she’s enjoying spreading the need for suicide prevention around her school — although it’s not always easy. 

“Emotions are the strongest thing that every single person has,” Kaylee Berger said. “Suicide prevention is not just about stopping suicide from happening, it’s about creating a safe enough space, and being a kind enough individual so that those negative thoughts don’t accumulate in the first place.”

September is Suicide Prevention Month. For more information on prevention and postvention, check out additional reporting by the Fort Worth Report.

David Moreno is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at [email protected] or via Twitter

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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