String of suicides among young people has Mount Horeb looking for answers

July 21, 2018

Several suicides by young people in Mount Horeb have the community struggling to find ways to address mental health among its youth.

Since last November, at least three Mount Horeb School District graduates or students died by suicide, including two confirmed deaths by suicide this month. Another death of a 10-year-old Monday is being investigated as a possible suicide, said Mount Horeb Police Chief Jeff Veloff.

Last November, a 17-year-old high school student died by suicide, followed by a 19-year-old graduate July 9 and a 21-year-old graduate July 13.

Veloff said the deaths don’t appear to be connected.

The deaths have left school officials of the 2,500-student district, teachers, mental health professionals and parents in the small village of about 7,000 wondering what can be done to support those affected by the recent deaths and spot others who may be at risk of harming themselves.

“All of these ... events have just been layer upon layer upon layer of difficult events for our community,” said Superintendent Steve Salerno.

He said a middle-school girl in the district also died this June from an illness.

At a School Board subcommittee meeting Thursday night, teachers, school district officials and mental health professionals met to ask questions, learn about resources, discuss the recent deaths and consider potential solutions to try to prevent future suicides. About 40 attended the meeting.

At the meeting, topics including hiring therapists and social workers to work in the schools, how teachers and parents can communicate about children they’re concerned about, recognizing isolated students, mental health training for all teachers, advertising available resources, and teaching youth resiliency and coping skills were discussed.

Some said people can’t be afraid to have frank discussions or offer constructive criticism.

But what officials and community members agreed on was that any solution would require cooperation and community input — and that the district would continue its work to come up with a plan to prioritize mental health.

“Unless we do it all together ... we’re not going to do the job we have to,” said school board member Rod Hise.

Salerno said the meeting was a good start to engaging with the community and listening to their concerns. He said the district has been working to increase access to mental health help for the last year by applying for grants to get additional social-services programming at the school or by trying to find a therapist to work for the district.

“We want to listen. We want to hear from people. We want to validate their feelings,” Salerno said.

In his 25 years as an educator, including stints in much larger districts, Salerno said he’s never had to deal with so many student deaths.

While Mount Horeb has dealt with these deaths, addressing mental health and helping those who are isolated are challenges facing all communities and schools, he said.

Before the community can start finalizing long-term steps and solutions, Lindsay Wallace, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Dane County, said it has to take care of the emotional needs of those affected by the recent deaths.

“It’s tragedies like these that can feel incredibly overwhelming,” she said, adding that the district’s students need to be involved in any solutions or campaign.

Wallace said she’s been inundated with phone calls and emails lately, mostly from students who are concerned about the deaths and concerned that they aren’t getting information about what’s happening.

“The last 24 hours my phone and email have been going off the hook with what’s happening,” Wallace said.

The first step in the grieving process for the community starts Sunday at a walk to raise mental health awareness.

Then, on Aug. 2, the school district and the Mental Health Community Coalition — a group working to tackle mental health and wellness issues in Mount Horeb — will hold a forum for the community to ask more questions, provide input or find out about mental health resources.

The Rev. Jared Parmley, pastor at Mount Horeb’s Immanuel Lutheran Church, said one thing he’s been hearing is that parents are struggling with how to talk to their children.

“They don’t know how to breach these tough subjects with their kids,” he said.

Veloff, the police chief, said the deaths have stunned the community.

“It was a shock to everybody,” he said, adding that the department typically sees no more than a couple of deaths by suicide a year.

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