Weakley County Schools Receive Additional Suicide Prevention Training

By Karen Campbell

Several familiar faces from Weakley County Schools attended last Friday’s Hidden in Plain Sight: Collaborative Approach to Mental Health Awareness presentations offered by the Northwest Council on Children and Youth of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth. Those in attendance included (from left) Regenia Horton, nurse at Greenfield School; Lorna Benson, Safe Schools Director for Weakley County Schools; Brittany Mangiaracinia, social worker for general education students; Dallis Lax, outreach specialist with Carey Counseling, one of the agencies that partners with Weakley schools; Jennifer Brown, nurse at Martin Middle School; Bethany Allen, Coordinated School Health Director for the county. Nancy Stutzman, a counselor at Martin Primary, attended but is not pictured.

Schools in Tennessee are now mandated to provide at least two hours of in-service suicide prevention training for all public school staff. At Friday’s Hidden in Plain Sight presentations on mental health provided by Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth and several other sponsors, members of the Weakley County Schools staff, nurses and counselors were gaining additional continuing education.

Lorna Benson, Safe Schools Director for Weakley County Schools, underscored that all staff including bus drivers and cafeteria workers who have regular contact with students are provided training. The county school system has utilized the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network (TSPN) for such training as well as online resources.

According to Phillip Barham of TSPN, the basic principles of suicide intervention and postvention in schools are: planning so that procedures are established before the need arises, protection to minimize the threat, engaging with parents/guardian as much as possible, customizing for each school, and debunking the myth that talking about suicide will cause suicide.

Barham recommends the QPR method utilized by TSPN in their training – Question, Persuade, Refer.

“QPR offers hope,” he said in reference to the approach that can be used by non-professionals who find themselves in need of engaging with someone contemplating the act.

He also noted that when schools are faced with the aftermath of a suicide, experts recommend avoiding a large assembly of the student body as such a gathering can contribute to spreading a highly charged emotional environment.

Benson said that assemblies have not been a part of Weakley County’s plan during her tenure. She said the county’s process for prevention includes first ensuring that the school counselor or principal is aware of talk of suicide. School social workers Brittany Mangiaracinia and Kellie Sims would then become involved. And, if needed, the student assistance program, coordinated by Benson’s office would then be engaged which includes assessment and solution-focused therapy through Carey Counseling.

New to the county is the Youth Mental Health First Aid team which will be launched on three campuses. Suicide prevention is included. As the result of recent grants, an additional social worker, Fred Claiborne, from Carey Counseling will be working with this team part-time.

Another partner, Youth Villages, has a contract for crisis calls, Benson noted.

“It all depends on where the child is,” she added regarding what services were tapped for any given situation.

Questions that are asked to assess the situation include: Do they have access to means? Do they have a plan?

“Hopefully, we will get a child to agree to a safety contract,” she said of a primary goal of intervention.

Benson has been working within schools and the school system for 26 years. In that time, one suicide has occurred, but it was not on a school campus.

“We have staff that want to help,” she said. “We can’t help unless we know. So, we encourage parents to have talks; we have the Text to Tip initiative. And at various times throughout the year we remind students if something is going on, tell somebody. We tell them, ‘You don’t have to be alone.’”

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