At the end of the school year, Sierra Middle School in Parker hosted a parent-student community night in which guests traveled to different classrooms to learn about resiliency in the face of adversity. One room, themed “healthy activities,” had bubble blowing, basketball and coloring. Another room, called “access to mental health,” offered resources for services in Douglas County.
Each room represented one of the eight strengths that form the foundation of a nationwide suicide-prevention program called Sources of Strength — positive friends, mentors, healthy activities, generosity, spirituality, medical access, mental health and family support.
For every strength that may feel inadequate, the program contends, at least one other strength is reliable, solid.
“The philosophy is that having one strength in our life is amazing and can be a support to us when we face any kind of adversity,” said Staci McCormack, coordinator of Douglas County School District’s Prevention and School Culture team, which helps schools implement the program. “Sources of Strength brings to light that, when we have more than one strength and are aware of that, we become more empowered.”
The program, identified by the multi-colored wheel labeled with the eight strengths, is currently in 15 middle schools and high schools in Douglas County. Nationally, it is in more than 500 schools.
The program has an impact on suicide prevention, as well as on overall emotional and physical wellbeing, said Scott LoMurray, deputy director of Sources of Strength, which is based in Lakewood.
“A lot of suicide prevention is intervention — it’s identifying people who are already at risk or in a crisis and trying to get them a referral,” LoMurray said. “While we do talk about risk factors and warning signs, we spend far more of our time talking about strength, resiliency, healthy coping skills and help-seeking. It’s really hopeful. It’s not a sad or depressing kind of message.”
District team one-of-a-kind
A key piece to implementing Sources of Strength in DCSD is the district’s Prevention and School Culture team, started three years ago to address bullying, school violence, substance abuse and suicide. The team’s objective is to teach healthy social and emotional skills to students in Douglas County schools.
The team’s seven members come from education, law enforcement and health care backgrounds.
They teach seminars on such topics as resiliency and kindness for elementary school students and healthy boundaries, healthy relationships and substance-abuse prevention for middle school and high school students.
The team is one-of-a-kind in Colorado, though other school districts have also put a focus on prevention, said McCormack.
“Across the state and the nation, we now know prevention is well worth the effort and is reaping great rewards,” McCormack said. “I think we share the passion with many other districts.”
Sources of Strength is an integral piece of the team’s mission.
The program costs each school about $500 per year, which pays for training and materials. Last year, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office donated $25,000 to help grow Sources of Strength, which in 2013 was listed on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices.
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Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock supports the program because of its collaborative nature between health professionals and schools. The donated funds came from asset forfeiture money, funds seized by the court from criminals who are harming the community, Spurlock said.
“What better way to turn something bad into good,” Spurlock said about the donation, noting that Sources of Strength focuses “on education, families, students, community groups and teachers ... on identifying a child with an issue and providing support before the child feels they have nowhere to turn but suicide.”
‘Content for human beings’
At each school, students from different social groups — artists, athletes, musicians — go through a three- to four-hour training led by members of the Prevention and School Culture team to become “peer leaders.” Staff members from every department, including librarians, teachers and counselors, are trained to become advisers.
Together, the group encourages students to speak up and seek help about challenges they’re experiencing, then connects them with resources and support. It leads messaging campaigns for the strengths listed on the wheel, which come in the form of art projects, activities, posters and social media hashtags. The group meets several times a month.
One of the district’s strongest Source of Strength programs is at Chaparral High School in Parker, which implemented it in 2016, following the deaths of three students by suicide in 2015. The program transformed the hallways into places of positivity, members of the prevention team said.
Orange paper chain links with names of family members of all students were hung along the ceiling of the main hallway, serving as a constant reminder of the strong relationships in students’ lives.
“We would connect them together and say, ‘We are all Chap family, you are part of my family because we are a Chap family,” said Ann Walton, a member of the district’s prevention team, who formerly worked as an emergency management coordinator at the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.
A giant poster proclaimed: “The bond that links your family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s lives.”
Since it enacted Sources of Strength, Chaparral has not had a student die by suicide, according to members of the prevention team. Student and staff participation, along with the reach of messaging campaigns, has shifted the culture at the school, team members say.
Kirstie June, who graduated from Chaparral in May, joined Sources of Strength as a peer leader her junior year, after spending two months at Children’s Hospital Colorado for an eating disorder. She had not contemplated suicide, but had struggled with anxiety and depression.
“I was slowly recovering and I wanted to get my voice out there with mental illness because it is so close to my heart,” said June, who plans to study psychiatry in college so she can help young people with mental illness.
Sources of Strength connected June to students who had dealt with similar mental health challenges. She recalls helping one student battling an eating disorder, another experiencing a great deal of anxiety at school. She would offer to walk the student to class.
“Of course, you can’t force them to go see a counselor, but you can definitely help motivate and influence them to go,” June said. “It’s a tight-knit community — I found some of my closest friends in Sources, and we were able to fall back on each other.”
The goal of Sources of Strength is to take the focus off what isn’t working in a young person’s life and bring attention to what is working, members say. It’s about building resiliency in students and sparking conversation around some of the harder topics, so students feel comfortable reaching out for help.
“Teens get stuck in the moment,” said Kimberly Moore, a member of the prevention team and former elementary school teacher and assistant principal. “When something is really bad, it feels like there is no way out, no way to overcome what is currently happening. They don’t see the bigger picture. With this, they can take a step back and find hope.”
LoMurray hopes to see the model used by all ages in all areas of life.
“This is not content for teenagers,” he said. “It’s content for human beings.”