ThedaCare Supports Peer-Led Program that Combats Suicide, Bullying and Substance Use
January 21, 2021
NEENAH, Wis. – Nationally, one in 13 high school students attempts suicide one or more times during their high school years, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for people under the age of 26, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports.
The Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health notes the death-by-suicide rate for Wisconsin adolescents is higher than the national average by .5 to 1.2 percent across multiple racial demographics, including Native American, Black and white children.
“With the coronavirus/COVID-19 impacting all aspects of students’ lives, mental health specialists throughout the country recognize that many adolescents’ physical, emotional and mental wellbeing are being hurt by the pandemic,” said Tracey Ratzburg, ThedaCare Community Health Coordinator. “The CDC highlights issues like not seeing close friends, changes in routines, breaks in continuity of learning and health care, loss of feelings of safety and security and missed significant life events – proms, graduations, homecomings, and family events like births, weddings and funerals – as challenges youth are facing.”
These are challenges that students and families have likely never faced before the pandemic.
“These upheavals to normal life make it more important than ever that parents and trusted adults maintain open relationships with their teens and look for changes that may signal distress,” said Kara Van Vooren, Sources of Strength coordinator and trainer for ThedaCare Community Health. “Schools throughout the Fox Valley have experienced increased reports of depression and anxiety in the last nine months. We really need to stay on top of helping kids connect to their positive friends, family support and all of the activities that build them up and help them recognize their strengths.”
Implementing the Sources of Strength Model
In 2019, ThedaCare Community Health embraced a program called Sources of Strength (SoS) as part of its commitment to improving the physical, mental and emotional health of the communities it serves.
SoS is a national youth suicide prevention program designed to harness the power of peer social networks to change unhealthy patterns of behavior, ultimately preventing suicide, bullying and substance abuse. “The mission of Sources of Strength is to prevent suicide by increasing help-seeking behaviors and promoting connections between peers and caring adults,” states the organization’s website, www.sourcesofstrength.org.
Van Vooren stressed that SoS is an “upstream” program designed to teach kids to recognize the strengths and resources they have within themselves and within people around them so when they become stressed they can use those strengths and resources to connect to the hope, help and resilience they need.
“SoS uses an eight-spoked wheel to identify the sources of strength everyone has, including: family support, positive friends, mentors, healthy activities, generosity, spirituality, physical and mental health,” said Van Vooren. “It’s also important to note that family isn’t necessarily blood relatives or people living in your home. Family is whomever kids feel connected to and whoever gives them strength.”
The SoS model is different from many other suicide prevention models in that it is peer led; it’s not a top down model where grownups tell kids how they should feel and act.
“We’re learning from students who make it through tough times – because they all have stress – what they do to find success,” she explained. “The goal is to engage 10 percent of a school’s students as peer leaders. We really work to ensure we draw those leaders from all of the groups within a school – academic achievers, video game players, athletes, students who are interested in arts and music – staff want to incorporate all students with leadership skills and influence. We want our peer leaders to represent the entire school population. Then we combine them with adult advisors who are caring, positive and connected and give them strategic messaging about what keeps us healthy.”
One campaign asks students to identify various staff throughout the school who are trusted adults.
“That can include teachers, buildings and grounds people, food service workers, counselors or anyone on staff who has a good rapport with students,” Van Vooren said. “We actually have the kids give the adult a postcard that says, ‘Thanks for being my trusted adult’ to create a one-on-one connection. This builds a help-seeking pathway for the students. Most importantly, one of the very key messages we give students is to never try to help someone who is suicidal on their own, but rather to call in a trusted adult.”
SoS programs have been active in schools in Calumet, Outagamie and Winnebago counties for the past three years, through the Northeast Wisconsin Mental Health Connection (www.NEWMentalHealthConnection.org). But those programs don’t reach outlying counties.
ThedaCare chose to implement the SoS program in the 9-county primary service area it serves outside of the Fox Valley after ThedaCare Community Health Action Team plunges related to the opioid crisis in those areas identified suicide, depression and substance abuse as significant problems in those communities.
Expanding the Program
The ThedaCare SoS team trained leaders in five schools during the 2019-2020 school year and hopes to bring four more schools on board during the 2020-2021 school year.
“We have the potential to organize SoS programs at 21 schools, and our goal is to bring five to six schools onboard each year until we meet that number,” Ratzburg explained.
ThedaCare has committed $280,000 to reduce training costs for schools in its service area for the next five years. Van Vooren and former Appleton East teacher and football coach, Pat Schwanke, are the certified SoS trainers for ThedaCare. Prior to the pandemic, they traveled to schools to provide training, but now all interactions are held virtually.
Clintonville High School began the SoS program three years ago after a Youth Risk Behavior Survey revealed that an alarming percentage of its students had suicidal thoughts or admitted to attempting suicide, along with other risky behaviors. Last year, ThedaCare approached Clintonville to assist them with their program. Special education teachers Carey Meyer and Becky Schoenike, who now manage the program at Clintonville, said partnering with ThedaCare has been great on many levels.
“In addition to their financial support, we have local trainers who are always available to discuss ideas rather than having to rely on national trainers whose time is more limited,” said Meyer. “Prior to the pandemic the ThedaCare SoS team was able to come to our school for training and events, so the convenience factor has been a great asset.”
Recently, Clintonville High School surveyed its students about how they are coping with the stress of this school year. Some 61 percent said they felt “overwhelmed and unable to keep up,” while another 45 percent said virtual learning “is very difficult.” Another 17 percent indicated they would like help dealing with their stress, while 83 percent said they were coping with the stress.
“We question that 83 percent a bit,” Meyer said. “Maybe kids are hesitant to say they’d like help because they think others might see their answer in the Google doc. We hope that’s not the case.”
Meyer and Schoenike noted that it’s not just students who are struggling.
“It is staff as well as the students,” Meyer said. “Not being able to have face-to-face contact with their students and not being able to create a rapport has been difficult for teachers. They’re going through struggles and have a lot on their plates, too.”
Clintonville’s first SoS campaign this year will be titled “What Helps Me.” Clintonville High School has a student population of 401 students and currently has 50 student leaders active within its SoS group.
“Our participation rate has been good,” Meyer observed. “Overall the program is going well throughout the school and some of the SoS terms are becoming buzzwords – like trusted adult. Kids know what you are talking about when you say it. Staff members are talking about SoS in their classrooms and they have signs on their doors that say, ‘I’m a trusted adult.’”
Looking Forward to Success
Meanwhile, the Weyauwega-Fremont School District is just beginning to implement SoS in its middle and high school this year. Middle School/High School Principal Jodi Alix encouraged bringing SoS into the District after having seen its success when she worked in the Hortonville School District.
“Hortonville was one of the first school districts in the area to embrace SoS, and it definitely had a positive impact on students and the community,” Alix said. “When I came to Weyauwega-Fremont, I aspired to have that same connection here between students and staff. We looked at the program and reviewed the costs and decided to apply for a Wisconsin Department of Justice safety grant to implement it, and we were awarded some money to move forward. Then we found out we could get a long-term commitment of support from ThedaCare, so we were ready to move forward.”
The ThedaCare SoS trainers met virtually with the Weyauwega-Fremont student leaders and staff in mid-October 2020, with 40 students and 10 adult staff members participating out of a student body of just over 400. Next they are planning their first activity to introduce students in grades six through 12 to the SoS wheel of strengths.
“Immediately after our training, kids were emailing me with ideas of how to do things on social media, so it’s exciting to see the students recognize the need for a program like this and have the enthusiasm and excitement to do something to help their peers and work together as a team to bring more positive things into our lives during this pandemic,” Alix said.
Alix noted the school would begin by applying SoS vocabulary and language to activities they traditionally do.
“For example, we have a blood drive twice a year, so we’ll talk about how generosity not only is something that helps someone else but also it helps you feel like you’ve done something good and puts you in a positive frame of mind,” she said.
Alix said throughout blended learning this year, students have been doing a good job of reaching out to adults when they’re struggling.
“Kids are definitely missing the normal routine, seeing their friends regularly, and they’re struggling to understand what is expected of them as they work through the virtual/face-to-face education process” Alix added. “This is the perfect time to have SoS in our school as we try to work through all the disruptions the pandemic is causing. These are challenging, stressful times and you really have to persevere by pulling on those positives you have in life, by focusing on positive thinking and happy distractions instead of getting caught up in the what ifs, whens, where’s – questions we can’t answer at this point.”
Van Vooren said the value of positive thinking cannot be overstated.
“If we can teach kids to focus on the positives in their lives, the things they’re grateful for, especially during times of stress, we hope to reduce the number of kids who will become depressed or develop suicidal or other harmful thoughts,” Van Vooren explained. “That’s working upstream from a problem rather than reacting to an immediate difficult situation.”