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New London High School embraces suicide prevention

Sources of Strength teaches resiliency

By Scott Bellile

Today’s education is about more than just providing students a viable curriculum, according to New London High School Principal Brian Yerkey.

“Schools are faced with an uphill battle when dealing with suicide prevention, mental health, school violence, substance abuse,” Yerkey told the New London School Board on Oct. 8. “And all those problems are very real in every community in every state. But it’s something that has to be addressed.”

Yerkey said high school staff and students on the Principal Advisory Council together explored introducing a program this fall to help students overcome these issues.

The one they decided on was Sources of Strength.

Sources of Strength is a national suicide prevention program that also aims to reduce those risky behaviors among teens that Yerkey mentioned.

The program takes a science-based approach by utilizing the power of in-person social networks.

Peer teams comprised of students guide the effort by spreading messages of hope, resiliency, connection and trust in adults.

“Probably the most important piece to this is that it’s led by peers,” Yerkey said. “It’s not led by adults. So peers will be doing the majority of the connecting. They’re far more likely to listen to somebody in their class. They’re far more likely to listen to someone they’re on Snapchat or Instagram with than they are to an old coot like me or [Associate Principal Jennifer] Bruce or one of their teachers.”

Yerkey said Sources of Strength is also a good fit for NLHS because it is research- and evidence-based.

According to Sources of Strength, research shows that the program effectively breaks down codes of silence and convinces students it is OK to seek help from adults.

“We want to provide [students] with some tools to have that resiliency, to know how to cope with some of the things that they’re going to face in life,” Yerkey said.

In July, the School District of New London was awarded a School-Based Mental Health Services Grant from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Part of that $57,500 grant will help fund the Sources of Strength program.

The program will cost roughly $5,000 per year to run, Yerkey said. The cost includes paying seven staff advisers who expect to put in time helping students outside of school hours

Although there are seven paid staff advisers, Yerkey said NLHS trained its entire staff so everyone is prepared when a student turns to them for help.

Sixty to seventy students were trained to serve on the peer team on Thursday, Oct. 18. Sources of Strength recommends having 10 percent of the student population be peers.

Hortonville High School implemented Sources of Strength about four years ago. Its outreach included a Color Run in Greenville on May 12 that attracted hundreds of participants.

“If you talk to schools like Hortonville, Oshkosh West, some of the bigger Appleton schools, Appleton North, Kimberly, Kaukauna, they have implemented this program and have seen great results in it,” Yerkey said. “Now one thing I will caution us on is this is not a solution to our problems. But this is one foundational tool we can use and we can rely on, and if done well, I think will make a difference in our schools.”

At the basis of the Sources of Strength program is a rainbow-colored wheel that reminds students of eight sources of strength that they can turn to in adversity: medical access, mental health, family support, positive friends, mentors, healthy activities, generosity and spirituality.

School board member Chris Martinson asked Yerkey about that last source, spirituality.

“Is there anything in this program that parents would come back and say, ‘You’re undermining what my kids are learning in their faith teaching that I’m doing,’ or would you say that it rather would reinforce that without overtly teaching religious values?”

Yerkey said the school district avoided religion when planning this program.

“It does say spirituality in there, but that can be in a million different forms,” Yerkey said. “That could be as simple as understanding how to meditate or understanding how to put yourself in a state where you can have that resiliency to cope with some of these things.”

NLHS will perform a school culture survey in the spring. If the data shows students feel safer in their building as well as more connected to their fellow teachers and students, then that will show Sources of Strength is working, Yerkey said.

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