Teen suicides lead to inventive class at high school
CLINTON, Miss. (AP) — At Clinton High School, a strategy for reducing teen suicides starts with hugs and paper sacks.
Each day for her class’ suicide prevention unit, sociology teacher Sherri Ottis greets students at the door with a sign that reads, “Pick One! Handshake, High Five, Hug.”
Eryka Greene, an 18-year-old senior, welcomed the sign “because I’m a very affectionate person. Getting hugs from Mrs. Ottis has brightened my day.”
Some students like the high fives, and others enjoy teaching Ottis special handshakes.
After entering the door, many students stop and check the paper sacks with their names, finding compliments and other positive comments their classmates have made about them — all anonymously.
Students love the paper sacks, so much so that Ottis said they ask her to do it the rest of the year.
“Many of the kids who commit suicide are feeling badly about themselves,” she said. “They’re depressed, which doesn’t mean if you’re depressed you’re suicidal.”
Through the art of giving compliments, students discover “they have the ability to lift up others,” she said. “It gives them practice in kindness.”
Educators and others across the U.S. are grappling with approaches to the growing numbers of youth suicide, which have increased nationally more than 70 percent over the past decade among those ages 10 to 17.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks children as young as 10 who take their own lives, Ottis said, because “the ages where children are committing suicide are getting younger and younger.”
Under Mississippi law, schools are now required to teach suicide prevention to students, she said.
Her suicide prevention unit involves the work of getting students to share what they’re thinking and what they’re feeling.
In her class Wednesday, she asked students, “What’s it like being a teenager?”
The answers poured in.
“One day, you may feel like it’s over.”
She asked the students if they feel teenagers overreact to situations.
Several agreed, with one adding, “Suicide should never be the answer.”
Ottis asked what caused them stress in their lives.
She asked, “Why people?”
“They wreck your soul.”
Students talked of spending three hours a day or more on band, sports, singing or other extracurricular activities. They also talked of parents putting too pressure on them to excel.
Before class began, Rebeca Arreguin, an 18-year-old junior, explained, “It is hard to be a young person right now because you can’t control that many things. You’re still understanding yourself, and you’re trying to understand what other people feel.”
She said her best friend attempted suicide.
“It was really hard, but I didn’t think there was a way to help her,” she said. “It was difficult because once it’s on their mind, you can’t take it out.”
Savannah Avery, a 16-year-old junior, suffered from severe depression her eighth-grade year. “I felt like I was by myself. Mrs. Ottis’ class makes you realize that you’re not alone,” she said, “and there are ways to help you get through.”
Abby Jackson, a 17-year-old junior, battles manic depression each day, and when she was in eighth grade, someone in her immediate family tried to commit suicide “right next to me,” she said. “I feel like (suicide prevention) is something everybody needs to know about, even if they don’t know anyone who has been through it.”
Natalie Hampton, a 16-year-old junior, said the class helped her learn what it means to be a family.
Before then, “I wasn’t really open to sharing my feelings with my friends,” she said. “I liked them from a distance. And then I learned it was OK to share your feelings with others. And I hope my friends feel the same way about me — and share their feelings with me.”
Students who take this course must sign an honor code.
“We’re family, and what we do belongs to us,” Ottis said. “And if other students want to know what’s going on, they can take the class. .
“We have students — and every school has this — there are students who have been raped, there are students who have been molested, there are students who have tried to take their own lives, multiple times. I truly believe this class makes a difference.”
Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com