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How one West Michigan school district is responding to student deaths by suicide

May 23, 2017

When a teen is depressed and wrestling with thoughts of suicide, the stigma associated with mental illness can be a huge barrier to reaching out for help.

That's why the culture and climate at school is so crucial. Schools need teachers and administrators who know the warning signs of a mental health crisis and what to do next to support their students. 

At Grand Haven Public Schools, six students have died by suicide since 2011. Those tragic losses have spurred the district to revamp the way they talk about mental health. 

(If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. You can find more Michigan resources for mental health crises listed by county here.) 

For Grand Haven High School principal Tracy Wilson, it's a very personal issue. She lost her father to suicide 21 years ago.

Wilson was an assistant principal at the school in 2011 when the district lost its first student to suicide. As an administrator, she said she's seen how a community tends to respond differently when someone dies as a result of a suicide. 

"Even though we try to be consistent in how we handle every student death, people struggle with what to do, what to say, how to reach out to families when it's a death by suicide," Wilson said. "And so I think it's really important as educators that we try hard to treat that family no different than we would if they lost a student or a son or a daughter to a traffic accident, for example."

Wilson said people tend to "stand back" and wait to follow the lead of the family before reaching out. They're afraid to make a mistake or to be insensitive, but Wilson said "the bigger mistake is made in just being silent and not reaching out at all."

Wilson tries to talk to the family and offer her condolences and to find out what information they would like to share with the community and the student body. Sharing information directly from the family is important because, Wilson said, they have a "social media monster" to battle. Often times, the information spreads throughout the student body before teachers and administrators can address it. Rumors get started and can make the situation even worse.

After Grand Haven High School lost a student to suicide in 2011, Wilson was motivated to address the issue right away. She wanted to find a way to support her students, but wasn't sure how to go about doing that. She recruited a mental health expert to talk to teachers and administrators, but she felt like there was some resistance to addressing the issue with the students themselves. 

"[In 2011,] conversations around mental health and around suicide weren't had by anybody," Wilson said.

But the stigma around mental health issues has "softened" in recent years, according to Wilson. And now the school is addressing mental health issues directly by raising awareness and offering support to students. 

Listen to the full interview above to hear about how Grand Haven High School supports students' mental health, why Wilson decided to speak publicly about her father's suicide and why she doesn't like to use the phrase "committed suicide". 

Minding Michigan is Stateside's ongoing series that examines mental health issues in our state.

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