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Episode 6: Suicide Prevention

This podcast addresses suicide prevention.

Lt. Governor Spencer Cox shares his personal experience and hard work to raise suicide prevention awareness in Utah.

Then, Jordan School District Health and Wellness Specialist, McKinley Withers, shares advice for parents on how to start a conversation about suicide prevention with students. How do you open the lines of communication and keep the conversation going.

If you or anyone you know needs help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or by calling the University of Utah Crisis Line at 801-587-3000. You can also download the SafeUT app.

For additional resources visit wellness.jordandistrict.org


Audio Transcription

The following podcast is about suicide prevention. If you or anyone, you know, needs help contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or locally by calling the university of Utah CrisisLine at (801) 587-3000 or download the SAFE UT app.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Welcome to the Supercast. I'm your host, Superintendent Anthony Godfrey. Today, we're going to talk about something that is impacting far too many families throughout Utah and the country right now. And that's suicide. More importantly, we're going to talk about suicide prevention in just a moment. We'll hear from our Jordan School District Health and Wellness Specialists, McKinley Withers. He joined us on the podcast previously with the episode titled, Happiness Forecast. He has information and resources for us to help prevent suicide, information for parents about what to do, if they're worried about their teen or just what they ought to be talking with their teen about, even if they don't see signs of a problem. But first, we had the opportunity to talk to Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox, who has a very personal story to tell. He's raising awareness statewide and has an important message for students when it comes to suicide prevention. Lieutenant Governor Cox.

Thank you very much for taking a few moments to talk with us for the podcast. You've been an advocate for suicide prevention. Tell us a little bit about some of what's been happening lately.

Sepncer Cox:
Well, we have some really exciting announcements around suicide prevention, as you know. This has been a struggle for our state, unfortunately the numbers of those that we've lost over the past few years have been unacceptable and, of course, losing any life. These are all preventable deaths. And so we really have turned a corner in Utah, in focus on this at a pub public policy level. We started about two years ago, the Governor Suicide Prevention Task Force, and coming out of that task force with some of the best and brightest in the state, we've had some incredible ideas.

The legislature has been very supportive. One of those ideas was the creation of a fund to help us to help us with suicide prevention awareness. We've never had a true statewide campaign with all stakeholders involved, to make sure that we're giving people good information and helping people understand where they can go for help and how to overcome those dark feelings that so many of us have had, me included. And so we got a million dollars from the legislature, if we could match it from the private sector. We announced yesterday, and we're so excited about this, the private sector stepped up. We now have the $2 million. We are just going through the RFP process right now for that suicide prevention campaign. And next year we will be launching that. It's a huge deal for Utah. We're very excited. And we just have to do more to help, especially our young people, understand that we need them to stay. That this life is so important and that things will get better.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Thank you very much. That's an exciting initiative. And you've been a personal advocate because of some personal experiences that you went through. And I know you connected to one of our students on a field trip up to visit you. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Spencer Cox:
Happy to. So, a few years ago I went to a conference on Suicide Prevention and I had my talking points all ready that my staff had helped me prepare and I listened to the stories of survivors. I listened to stories of parents who had lost their children. And I was just taken back to a time when I struggled and I realized that we needed to talk about this more, that talking about it is actually healthy. That it's good, that it helps kids understand that they're not alone because when we get in those dark times, we feel like we're the only one and we must be broken and there's something wrong with us. I went through that in middle school. I was bullied. My parents had been divorced. It was a really dark time for me.

And I started thinking that maybe the world would be a better place if I wasn't in it. And I'm so grateful that I had people I could talk to. People that believed in me, people that helped me. And I'm just grateful that I stayed in and I have an incredible life. So I I've started sharing that now, as I travel around and I did meet with some students from your District that were at my office. They're always taken back a little They're there to tour the Capitol and see things. And why is this guy talking to us about suicide prevention? But I want them to know that it's okay and that they're not alone. And what we do know is that in a class of 30 to 35 kids, seven of them have had those thoughts.

There's a power in understanding that and realizing that and encouraging people to talk to someone, to find someone, whether it's a friend, a family member, a counselor, a teacher, someone that they can talk to about what they're feeling. And so I mentioned that to these kids and just said, "Hey, look, I know what some of you right now in this room are thinking about. I know you are statistics tell me there are probably five or six of you. And you need to find someone to talk to, anyone. And if you can't talk to anyone, talk to me. And as we finished, a student came up and said, can I give you a hug? And I said, sure. And she told me, I'm one of those that's been thinking about it.

And this is the other thing. Sometimes we don't know what to do. And if you're not one of those five or six people, then you have a friend that is, so talk about it. And I just said, I thank you for sharing that with me. You know, don't freak out. Just tell them how much you love them. And then, and then refer them and help them get help. And that's what I did. I said, thank you for sharing that. It means the world to me. We talked for a few minutes about her feelings. And then I was able to talk to some of the administrators and counselors and get her some help. And I understand she's doing much better. And so it seems really simple, but that's how we save lives.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Thank you. That's great advice because so many people are afraid of talking about it. They're worried that if they talk about it, it'll make things worse or give someone an idea, when in fact, like you said, it just emphasizes that you're not alone and that this isn't a unique thing for someone to feel. And for someone in your position to be willing to talk about it, like you said, on a Capitol tour of all things, to be able to talk about that, it's just what we need to be doing. And I really appreciate your example in that way. Is there any last words of encouragement you would give any students listening to the podcast?

Spencer Cox:
Well, I would just tell students everywhere how powerful they are and the potential that they have that they don't even realize yet. There are so many great days ahead. And we love you. We're excited for your future, and even if it seems hopeless and dark right now, it is not, trust me. Please find someone to reach out to. I would encourage everyone to download the SAFE Utah app on their phones, at the push of a button. When you find yourself in those dark moments in crisis, you can be connected anonymously, if you want to be with a mental health professional, who can walk through those things with you. And if you don't have access to a smartphone or a tablet to do that, you can you can always just pick up the phone and call the Suicide Lifeline here in the state. It's 1-800-273-TALK, that's 1-800-273-TALK. And please, please, please find someone to talk to. There are better days ahead.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Lt. Governor Cox, thank you so much for taking the time. I know you're busy. We really appreciate it. Thank you.

We're back in studio with McKinley Withers, the Health and Wellness Specialist for Jordan School District. So McKinley, I want to focus specifically on what parents can do to help prevent suicide. First off, should parents talk to their children about suicide?

McKinley:
Yes, definitely. And there is a myth out there that talking about it might plant the idea in a child's head or might make them think about it if they weren't before. There's no reason to believe that's the case. It's safe to talk about it. And, in fact, it's one of the best ways to begin the conversation and also to get help for your child. It helps alleviate those feelings that they may be having, just to know that their parent has asked directly actually about that. So great.

Superintendent Godfrey:
So in what ways do we go about asking that question? How do we approach the topic with our kids? Because you don't just want out of the blue, want to say, "Hey, by the way", it's always hard to approach topics like that. How do we go about it?

McKinley:
You can safely assume that your child has heard about it already, that the media, that they are exposed to that. It's already talking about it. They may have seen it in shows. They've heard it mentioned. So you're not the first person to bring it up. And that's important to acknowledge so that you feel a little bit more comfortable with asking about it. So that can come up naturally in conversations about some of their media content. Maybe they've come across it at school, or maybe they've asked a question. But also if you're seeing any signs that they're struggling or acting differently, I think that a really inviting and open way to ask the question is something along the lines of, "I've noticed that you've been struggling a little bit, you've been having a hard time. And I've heard that a lot of kids your age, when they struggle might have thoughts of hurting themselves, is that something you've ever thought about?" And the reason that's a good way to ask the question is it already tells them, you're aware that a lot of other kids have that issue. So it doesn't make them feel bad about it. So they're more likely to say, "Well, yeah, I have thought about it."

Superintendent Godfrey:
I like that. That makes a lot of sense. So let's say that they say, no, I haven't. Then what do you say after that?

McKinley:
Well, thank you for talking to me. And if you do ever have those thoughts or feelings, just know that I'm here and I'm always willing to talk about it and make sure that you get the help that you need, which starts with me.

Superintendent Godfrey:
What if they say yes. Okay.

McKinley:
So, there's actually a pretty good chance that you could hear yes. And that can be a scary thought for many people.

But if somebody says yes, it doesn't mean that they've necessarily made a plan, that it's imminent. Simply that they've thought about it before.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Right. So where do you go from there?

McKinley:
And I'll tell you, I think it's important to say how not to react, because if you want to close down that conversation, say something like, "Oh, well that would be stupid. Or, you know you wouldn't want to go and do something like that, would you?" Because that makes them not feel safe. And they might say, "Oh, you're right. I'm not thinking about it. So acknowledging and validating, I think that is a really good general rule for parents when it comes to these difficult conversations, is to remember that if it matters to the child, then it matters. So don't downplay whatever it is that they're struggling with by saying, "Oh, you're thinking about hurting yourself over that breakup.  I thought you guys were together for three weeks. That's ridiculous. Right." So you can see how that, rather than, "Wow. I didn't realize that's so hard and I'm here to help."

Superintendent Godfrey:
That makes a lot of sense. So I think that starting with don't freak out, don't tell them that it's dumb that they're concerned, or that they are struggling with those thoughts or shut down that conversation, but to open it up and validate whatever it is that matters to them. Have that conversation. And you can almost use that same sentence structure that we use to ask the question and say, "well, I've heard that many kids struggle with these feelings and thoughts, and I've also heard that they get better and that there is hope, and that there is help available. And I want to be here for you".

Superintendent Godfrey:
I'm just sitting across from you hearing it's a hypothetical, I know, but it kind of feels good to hear that even in a hypothetical situation. So I can see that would be very effective. And I can definitely see how easy it would be to try to convince the child that you're not in a situation where you would ever need to do that. And it would not feel like talking to them out of it. It would just be shutting down lines of communication. And so it makes a lot of sense to me that if it's a yes, if it's a no, whatever the answer is, you want to do whatever you can to keep the lines of communication open.

McKinley:
We have a tendency to minimize because that feels safer. We don't want it to be a problem either. We don't want our kid to be suicidal or so you want to say, well stop that, you know, turn that off. And  be done with that and let's move on, but that's not going to help them feel better. That's going to shut them down. So rather than minimizing, just continuing that supportive listening relationship. And I'll tell you, I think that our most impactful moments of suicide prevention are way before that crisis conversation, right? It's our everyday interactions that open up that line of communication. It's our mundane validation of the child's behavior. Whatever it is that matters to them, if we've told them that their thoughts and feelings matter on a consistent basis, when they're struggling, you've made that investment. And that's when that particular conversation goes a lot better because you've proved to them that you're a trusted person.

Superintendent Godfrey:
So keep the conversation going with your child, ask about suicide when you can, when you can make it part of the conversation, whether the answer is yes or no, don't minimize. Keep the communication open. What signs should parents watch for? They should talk with their child about suicide regardless, but what are the warning signs to be concerned about?

McKinley:
So we're going to talk about three primary areas of concern, where warning signs are typically expressed, what words, what they might say, actions, things they might be doing and circumstances or situations they might be in. So with words, anything that would indicate that they feel like a burden, this family would be a lot better if I weren't here, or if they're often expressing feelings of even loneliness isolation. I don't have any friends or I don't have anything that I could be doing. You know, they feel bored often. I mean, they're expressing that they're just don't feel value in their life or feel purposeful or and especially again, I'm going to say this word again, because it's very important, that they feel like a burden to their friends or to the family, that they're not worth something.

Okay. And also with words, they may say something about hurting themselves and that's important to take seriously. Even if it's ingest sometimes. Sure. So whether they're talking about feeling like a burden or even hurting themselves and then actions, so when it comes to behavior, you're looking for big changes. And sometimes I guess I shouldn't say big changes. It might be subtle changes, but something that's off in how they're acting, whether that's sleeping too much, sleeping, too little eating, too much eating, too little increases in substance abuse, they're isolating withdrawing. And then the third area is situations. So if you know about a breakup or if you know about, they were cut from a team or even a divorce in your family or the loss of a friend or a family member, someone who's died, those are situational factors. That really what you're looking for is a combination of things. You might hear a few words that are a little bit off. You might see a few changes that in their behavior that are a little bit off, but you also might be aware of some circumstances. So it's not that every breakup is there on the path to hurting themselves, but if they've had a breakup and they've also been acting a little bit differently and not dealing with it, how you would expect, and you've also heard them saying some things that would indicate they don't feel valued, I would be concerned.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Okay, we're going to take a quick break. Then we'll be back with McKinley Withers to talk about how we can keep our home safe and what resources are when we do see that there's a problem.

Break:
Hey, you okay?

Yeah. I just have a lot of stuff going on in my head.

You need to talk, dude, stop hiding behind the happy face. Talk with no filter, get the safe UT app, download it now available on the Apple app store, Google play or SafeUT.org.

Superintendent Godfrey:
And we're back here with McKinley Withers, the Health and Wellness Specialist for Jordan School District. McKinley, tell me how can we create a safe environment at home?

McKinley:
So there are a few things to think about when it comes to safety in the home. We've already talked a lot about safe conversations, so it's important to keep that safe conversation going. That it's okay to talk about these serious topics with our children and to build their trust with them.

When they are struggling, the other type of safety is physical safety. We want to create a home environment that if someone were struggling and they were going to make an impulsive or sudden decision to hurt themselves, that there is time and distance between them and something that would hurt them. So to create that kind of safety, we need to consider primarily two things, pills and guns.

Oftentimes we don't think to lock up or create a distance or time and distance between a child and pills, but that's an important thing to consider in your home. Does my child have too easy of access to pills and the other is guns? Those need to be locked up, kept away from children. If there is a combination on a safe, change it, just so that you're confident and certain that your children don't have access to a loaded gun.

Superintendent Godfrey:
McKinley. What resources are available to parents who are worried about their children?

McKinley:
So there are several and your greatest tool is in most people's pockets. Your cell phone can be a great resource. If you'd say to Siri, "I'm thinking about hurting myself or someone in my home is thinking about hurting themselves", Siri will automatically offer to call the National Prevention Lifeline. That's something you can try just to practice it. Know that it's there. You can actually just call that number. So that's 1-800-273-TALK, so you just spell talk.

You can use the Safe UT app, which will connect you to the U of U Crisis Line, which you can also just call directly at (801) 587-3000. The U of U Crisis Line is connected to the Mobile Crisis Outreach Team in the Salt Lake Valley. So if there is the need, for someone will come physically to your house to support an individual who might be struggling. Then that team can be reached through that number as well.

And then also, you can check wellness.jordandistrict.org. There are a number of resources and connections for those difficult situations.

Superintendent Godfrey:
What about school counselors and school psychologists? Parents can always contact them for help.

McKinley:
Definitely. Yeah. We've got the best in the business as you know. So if you're not sure where to go, the individuals at your school can help you. They are great people who care about kids. No question about it.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Yeah. Well, thank you very much for your time McKinley. I recommend that folks listen to the other podcast episode we already have, and we'll have future podcast episodes about happiness, health, wellness, how to connect, communicating well with your child. It's really about creating that healthy environment at home. So thanks again for all your help.

McKinley:
Thanks for having me.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Thanks for joining us on the podcast. And remember, education is the most important thing you'll do today. We'll see you.

McKinley:
If you or anyone you know needs help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or locally by calling the University of Utah Crisis Line at (801) 587-3000 or download the Safe UT app.

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