In light of a recent string of teen suicides, Clay County residents and officials are taking a second look at the resources available to prevent future tragedies.
The county experienced three student suicides this year: two in February and one in March. According to data provided by the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, two student suicides also took place in both 2011 and 2013.
Two of the three suicides were Keystone Heights Junior/Senior High School students. On April 11, another Keystone student was killed when he was hit by a truck on his way to the bus stop.
“It’s just been a tough couple of months districtwide,” said Gavin Rollins, Clay County School District spokesperson.
To help students cope, a team of grief counselors was sent to Keystone. Another team visited Middleburg High School, where the first of the three teens who committed suicide attended.
Rollins said the district plans to give school personnel additional training on how to detect warning signs in students.
“We’ve always had resources available for suicide prevention, but I think we’re taking a more proactive, holistic look at our programs and ensuring we’re doing everything we can,” Rollins said.
The district is working with Melissa Witmeier, project coordinator for the Florida Suicide Prevention Project, to implement a new program.
Witmeier is helping train staff in QPR, a suicide prevention and intervention response program that stands for Question, Persuade, Refer.
“Our plan is to identify the instructors and get them certified,” Witmeier said. “Then mentor them over the summer, so that when school starts, we’ll be able to put into place the training for the faculty and staff.”
Right now, it’s important to give the community time to grieve, which she said could take months.
“A lot of times people feel like they missed something, and we would never want people to feel guilty or blame themselves,” she said. “This is a time where we talk a lot about helping people and teaching them that there are resources out there in the community.”
Parents are also getting involved.
Betsy Condon, whose son is a freshman at Keystone, organized a parent education night focused on suicide-prevention for May 1 to discuss the issue.
“I’m doing this as a concerned parent. I want to know what I should be looking for,” she said.
Condon said Stephanie Jallen, a psychiatrist at the University of Florida who focuses on children and adolescents, will give a talk at the education night at Keystone. Jallen will speak to parents about how to recognize when a behavior is normal and when it’s a sign of something more serious.
“Parents are concerned because they want to be more involved with their kids,” Condon said. “They want to be better informed on the struggles and challenges our teenagers are facing.”
Rollins said it’s important for parents to take steps like these to ensure their children’s safety.
“The biggest message we want communicated out there is that there are resources available,” Rollins said. “No one has to go at this alone.”