HELENA — Helena Public Schools Superintendent Rex Weltz says last week, when two students died by suicide, had an impact on the entire district.
“When something happens at Helena or Capital or one of our elementaries, we all feel it, every teacher,” he said. “Although it may not be our school, it’s our district, and so there’s a ripple effect, a compound effect.”
Weltz called it “one of the worst weeks that we could imagine,” because of those two deaths and the death of a former student in a car crash. He said, at this point, they have been focusing on providing needed support for students and for staff.
“I think that’s the important step of getting through a tragic event or a tragic week, is to allow ourself the grace to mourn and grieve and heal,” he said.
Weltz said that support has come from many places. That includes the district’s own counselors and its Comprehensive School and Community Treatment, or CSCT, behavioral health teams. Shodair Children’s Hospital reached out to provide access to therapists, and the district has worked with other private practices for therapy and training.
“Our resources out in the community have certainly stepped up to help out and offer, and we’ve taken advantage of that,” he said.
One of the people who’s been working with the district is Karl Rosston, the suicide prevention coordinator for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. He says he came in and met with teachers earlier this week.
Rosston says his focus was on helping the district plan for “postvention,” an organized response to suicide. He says it’s essential for the school to identify students who are at high risk and make sure they’re getting the help they need.
“It’s critical the school connects with them,” he said. “We really want parents to be aware of warning signs to look for and to make sure that they’re working with their pediatrician or a local counselor or mental health provider to provide resources or services if a child needs them.”
Weltz says the district is committed to doing that work – and they understand it has to continue beyond just this week.
“We want to do that all the way through winter break,” he said. “Even when we’re out of school, we’re still developing and talking about strategies to connect with students and our staff that are grieving.”
Rosston says, going forward, advocates believe it’s important to have broader screenings of students, so teens with risk factors can be identified earlier.
“What we’re really hoping for is to have the screening in place so that parents have the information they need to make the best decision for their child,” he said.
Rosston says it’s important, especially starting in middle school, to train schools and students to recognize warning signs.
Montana DPHHS has collected extensive resources for schools, health care providers and individuals here.
Advocates also ask that anyone who is experiencing thoughts of suicide or has a friend who is struggling call the Montana Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-TALK (1 (800) 273-8255), or text “MT” to 741-741. The service is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.