After a fellow San Luis Obispo High School student’s suicide in 2016, Nathan Kaplan asked his dad, a mental health professional, what more could be done to prevent such tragedies.
That late-night conversation led to a new program launched a few weeks ago at three local schools by the nonprofit Transitions Mental Health Association (TMHA). The aptly titled High School Program integrates mental health basics with detection and suicide prevention strategies for both school staff and students.
“We already had a Mental Health Awareness Week (in school), but we knew we could build on that,” said Kaplan, now a freshman at Loyola University New Orleans. “This is a big thing right now. It’s something everyone has an issue with in some way.”
So far roughly 100 local high school students involved in student leadership programs have received about eight hours in training from mental health professionals in how to identify signs of mental distress in their friends and classmates — and what they can do if they detect them.
In addition, customized training has been provided to about 180 school teachers and staff, and the association has shared mental health basics in presentations to more than 650 students.
The program launched at SLO High, Templeton High School and Santa Lucia Middle School, thanks to TMHA securing a $100,000 grant from the Gertrude & Leonard Fairbanks Foundation. It could expand to other campuses next year.
I think young people are more prepared to talk about it. But they’re not necessarily going to start the conversation on their own.
Michael Kaplan, Fund Development Manager, Transitions Mental Health Association
Mental health ‘first aid’
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 20 percent of teens ages 13 to 18 live with a mental health condition and 50 percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14. About 37 percent of students with a mental health condition 14 years or older drop out of school.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people ages 10 to 24, and about 90 percent of those who commit suicide had some underlying mental illness, according to the organization.
“Suicide is the extreme end of the spectrum, but there’s a lot of things that connect to it,” said Michael Kaplan, Nathan’s father and TMHA Fund Development Manager. “We also understand that’s not the only problem, that we’ve got kids struggling with depression or anxiety, and they may think this is just who they are and it’s never going to change.”
The key to change, he said, is awareness and discussion.
“There’s a common misconception that if you ask someone if they’re contemplating suicide, it puts the idea in their mind. That’s simply not the case,” Michael Kaplan said. “You relieve a lot more tension by bringing these issues to light.”
That’s why he and his son Nathan concluded there needed to be more support and education for local students and their school’s teachers, administrators, counselors, janitors and cafeteria staff. They enlisted the help of three other SLO High students who, like Nathan, were involved in Associated Student Body and student leadership programs.
They worked with TMHA staff to draft a plan where the nonprofit would rotate a certified mental health advocate at different school campuses, provide mental health training to school staff, and offer some of the same training to any student who was interested.
With the students’ input, TMHA drafted a proposal that won the grant funding in mid-2016.
At a 90-minute introductory training session at Templeton High on Monday, TMHA Advocate Amy Waddle emphasized the importance of talking about suicide. She noted her own past struggles with depression, bipolar disorder, bulimia, and suicidal behavior when she began experiencing symptoms at the age 16.
“I didn’t understand what I was going through so I didn’t reach out. It kept me silent,” Waddle said. “Their (students) mental health problems often develop during adolescence, so this is the time to start looking for it.”
This is a big thing right now. It’s something everyone has an issue with in some way.
Nathan Kaplan, former San Luis Obispo High School student
The program hasn’t attracted any negative responses from students or parents, though Michael Kaplan said he understands that the topics of mental health and suicide are not comfortable ones for many, if not most, people.
But that may slowly be changing as popular culture recently has embraced movies and music taking an honest look at mental health and suicide, such as San Luis Obispo author Jay Asher’s 2007 bestselling book “13 Reasons Why,” which deals with suicide, sexual assault and bullying. It was made into a Netflix series this year.
“It’s not just ‘13 Reasons Why.’ It’s Demi Lovato saying ‘I live with bipolar.’ It’s different athletes who’ve been able to own their anxiety and say publicly that they have to work on it,” Kaplan said. “I think it’s out there a lot more and I think young people are more prepared to talk about it — but they’re not necessarily going to start the conversation on their own.”
The program has received good feedback.
“It’s been very positive. I think it empowers our students to be knowledgeable of these issues affecting our society,” said San Luis Obispo High School Principal Leslie O’Connor. “For staff, it’s an ongoing training opportunity to be more aware of those and it makes us better equipped.”
For more information on the High School Program, contact Transitions Mental Health Association at 805-540-6500. A Suicide Prevention Forum held Wednesday at 4 p.m. at the United Methodist Church will also feature information specifically about young adult mental health. The event is free.
Two events in San Luis Obispo this week seek to spread awareness about suicide prevention.
Suicide Prevention Forum: Wednesday, Oct. 11
Learn more about Transitions Mental Health Association’s High School Program, and watch presentations by mental health experts hosted by the Suicide Prevention Council of San Luis Obispo County and representatives for other local organizations. The event is free and runs from 4-6 p.m. at San Luis Obispo United Methodist Church at 1515 Fredricks Street. For more information, visit T-MHA.org or email email@example.com.
Out of the Darkness Community Walk: Saturday, Oct. 14
The American Foundation For Suicide Prevention is hosting the annual Out of the Darkness Walk, a community fundraiser to raise awareness and money for local resources for suicide prevention. The public is encouraged to arrive at 8:45 a.m. in Mission Plaza to explore a resource fair, where literature, information about upcoming events, and resources to connect with others will be available.
After an opening ceremony at 10 a.m., a 3-mile walk will be held around downtown San Luis Obispo at 10:30 a.m. and return to the Mission for a closing ceremony at 11:30 a.m. Interested walkers are asked to register before noon Friday at goo.gl/FD7ocx, though walk-in registrations are welcome. Donations to the event can be made at goo.gl/F4B5GX. For more information, contact Christine Claxton at 805-602-0493 or firstname.lastname@example.org.