By Casey Hans
A partnership in its third year between The Ann Arbor Public Schools and the University of Michigan Health System is working to raise awareness of depression and the risk for suicide in children.
More than 350 Ann Arbor staff members have been trained to spot anxiety and depression and keep it from escalating into a problem. The partnership is between the district and the U-M Depression Center.
“We’re not asking teachers to become mental health professionals. We want them to be able to talk to a student or colleague if they see a problem,” explained Trish Meyer, program manager for outreach and education at the U-M Depression Center who also is a parent in The Ann Arbor Public Schools.
The partnership is not funded by public money, but by private donations, Meyer said. Community donations as well as fundraisers run by the Depression Center Community Volunteer Committee and several memorial funds from families who have lost children to suicide provided seed money for the program.
In two years, most Ann Arbor secondary principals and middle school staff as well as some from the district’s central office have gone through awareness training and, this year, training has begun for high school staff. Ann Arbor schools Administrator for Secondary Education Joyce Hunter stressed that the district intends for the program to be self-sustaining, which is why so many staff members are being trained and can then train each other.
Most train with SafeTALK (suicide alertness for everyone; Tell, Ask, Listen, Keep Safe), which helps participants challenge attitudes about depression, recognizing when someone is having a problem, engaging them in discussion, listening to them and then connecting them with a trained professional.
Some have chosen to go a step further and train in suicide intervention skills. Twenty four Ann Arbor school employees have received additional training through ASIST, which stands for applied suicide intervention training skills. Of those, 10 can now train other staff members in SafeTALK.
One of those is Northside Elementary School social worker Julieanne Muir, who is a trainer for both safeTALK ad ASIST sessions. She said she became interested as someone who deals with such things professionally and said she also has been touched personally. She said today’s economic climate is causing even more concern.
“I’m seeing more families and children that are stressed,” she said. “And staff are dealing with the same issues.”
She said training sessions always show how widespread the problem is. “In every single training there has been a staff member or multiple staff members who have been impacted by suicide or depression,” she said. “It’s there. It impacts people at every single (school) level.”
Depression is a chronic medical condition that is often misunderstood, Meyer said. The average age where clinical depression and bipolar disorder is first seen is between the ages of 15 and 24; recognizing and managing depression early can help prevent tragedies in schools and elsewhere, she said.
According to information reported through Washtenaw Alive, a consortium of county health professionals dedicated to preventing suicide, annually some 16 percent of Michigan high school students seriously consider attempting suicide, 12 percent make suicide plans, nine percent make attempts and three percent attempt and require medical treatment.
Anne Kramer, a research associate and clinical social worker with the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry also works with the Ann Arbor program and said schools are the logical place to reach young people since they spend so much time there. She notes that 20 percent of students in their late teens have experienced depression at some point in their lives.
“If left untreated, symptoms can become worse, episodes can be closer together,” she said, and some can escalate into the suicidal realm. Kramer said there are a number of coping strategies that can be taught to those with depression including teaching ways to live a healthier lifestyle and other treatments including therapy and medication.
She said anecdotal evidence from school staff show that the partnership between Ann Arbor and U-M is doing its job and raising awareness. “And that’s encouraging,” she added.
“People are often reluctant to talk about these issues, thinking that if they talk about them, it will somehow cause problems to happen” which is not true, she said. “A lot of them are relieved to have a place to talk about them.”
Muir suggests and parents and staff follow their instincts when it comes to recognizing a problem. “Trust your judgment that you know and understand your children and students well,” she said. “If you see spikes in behavior, changes in mood, find out what might be going on.”
She said parents also should “rely on the systems around you” for help. Talk to teachers, your child’s pediatrician, other family members and professionals in the schools. “Drawing on those relationships and systems around you are really important,” she added.
The next step for the schools, Kramer said, is to involve more parents and students. A community session about anxiety and depression in youth is scheduled for this week, Nov. 17, at 7 p.m. at The Ann Arbor Public Library. Also, a new pilot program to raise awareness about depression among high school students will also get under way this year.
Ann Arbor is one of two districts partnering with the U-M Depression Center. The other is the Gull Lake Community Schools on Michigan’s west side.
U-M Depression Center, resources for parents
Washtenaw County Public Health Resource list
Washtenaw Alive, a countywide initiative to reduce the numbers of suicides
Casey Hans edits this newsletter for The Ann Arbor Public Schools. Reach her at email@example.com or call 734-994-2090 ext. 51228.
• Washtenaw County First Connect: Dial 2-1-1
• Ozone House 24-hour crisis line: 734-662-2222
• SOS Crisis Center: 734-484-4300
• U-M Psychiatric Emergency Services: 734-936-5900
• Washtenaw County Crisis Center: 734- 996-4747 (M-F 5 p.m.-8:30 a.m., weekends, holidays)
Depression and Anxiety in Youth & Adolescents
When: 7-8:30 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 17.
Where: Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave., Ann Arbor.
Presenter: Dr. Kate Fitzgerald, assistant professor, University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry Child and Adolescent Anxiety Program.
Sponsors: The U-M Depression Center and with The Ann Arbor District Library.