Mesa County Valley School District 51 received a grant to bolster its ability to help youths that are struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues. The School Health Professional grant is $557,000 and enables every high school to have a social worker to help with mental health and substance issues, along with suicidal ideation. The effort to increase assistance is overseen by Prevention Services Coordinator Cathy Ebel.

Ebel of School District 51 has been working with the district for 17 years and writes grants for kids with barriers, while supporting the school staff and their work. School District 51 is comprised of 44 schools.

When Ebel writes grants, she uses research and data to make sure that the grant can improve the life of the student. Ebel’s new approach identifies mental health and suicidal ideation through resiliency training and allowing more people, students and staff alike, to help students with mental illnesses or thoughts of suicide.

Ebel is “beefing up” on suicide prevention by hiring a suicide prevention specialist that will work district-wide to make sure that schools are teaching the resiliency curriculum while being funded by Medicaid dollars.

From research the district collected, it was determined that a proactive approach geared toward improving student resiliency is more effective than an intervention or reactive treatment of students. With reactive treatment options, students can turn town self-medicating as a way to find a solution to their problem, which can be more damaging in the long term. 

This new curriculum will help students and faculty learn to identify the signs of suicide, as well as teach students that keeping secrets regarding suicidal ideation for friends is dangerous.

“A mad friend is better than a dead friend,” Ebel said.

The goal of this new program is to overcome a stigma toward suicide. If a student knows their peer wants to hurt themselves or even others, they can intervene and save their peer’s life.

School District 51 Superintendent Ken Haptonstall will have a council of youths advise him on how to prevent and identify suicide. Last year’s council was considered important due to a prior “horrendous year.”

The council came up with some goals to reduce last year’s number of teen suicides in Mesa County. Ebel explained that one of the goals was the creation of a peer ambassador position: a student trained in recognizing, responding and preventing suicide.

These ambassadors will have visible markers, like a bracelet or a shirt, to signify that they are a safe source for peers to come to for help. An ambassador will be there to help and assist anyone who may have thoughts of suicide. Ambassadors can vary from staff to students, as they undergo training to identify and prevent suicide.

School District 51 and Dr. Haptonstall aim to make mental health a graduation requirement. Much like physical education where a student has to pass certain physical requirements to graduate, they will need to pass certain mental health requirements in order to graduate high school. The district wants to promote the idea that mental health and wellness is just as important as physical health.

Another goal is to advertise mental health programs by fundraising. These fundraisers will enable students to be able to get into pro-social and extracurricular activities.

The superintendent also wants a coalition with Colorado Mesa University comprised of the media department and social behavioral majors, along with the new suicide prevention specialist at CMU and the health department to help with training. Kate Simmons will serve as their community partner.

A Suicide prevention specialist will be at the preventions modular behind the Basil T Knight Center after Sept. 12 and will be proactive in the preventive training. Any questions, comments or concerns about mental health or suicide can be answered at this center, located at 596 N Westgate Dr.

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