Suicide Prevention Part of Chaparral Culture

Peer-to-Peer Suicide Prevention Part of Chaparral Culture
Posted on 03/04/2020
Peer-to-Peer Suicide Prevention Part of Chaparral Culture

PARKER - Christina Fournier, a junior at Chaparral High School, is actively involved in student life. During the theatre department's production of the musical Matilda in February, Fournier spent late nights at rehearsal juggling loads of homework with her responsibilities in the production. But theatre isn't Fournier's only forte. She is also part of a select group of students who are redefining the high school experience through Sources of Strength.
Sources of Strength Wheel
At its core, Sources of Strength is a youth suicide prevention program that harnesses the power of peer social networks to change unhealthy norms and culture. The program focuses on strengthening sources of support, or protective factors, around young adults, so they have helpful tools when going through tough times. Sources of Strength uses a wheel model with eight different strengths: Family Support, Positive Friends, Mentors, Healthy Activities, Generosity, Spirituality, Medical Access, and Mental Health. The program has been active at Chaparral High School since 2015 and has become an integrated part of the building's culture. An independent leadership class has been established in the schedule for 30 Peer Leaders to organize nearly 200 other students in focused campaigns.

It's important to note that students teach and support other students in the Sources of Strength program. While trusted adults are available, the real magic happens between peers. According to Christina Fournier, the relationships students have with each other are vital to reaching other struggling teens.

"I think it's hard for adults to look in if a kid is closed off," said Fournier. "But being a student, you can get a better perspective and a different view than an adult into the situation."

These peer-to-peer connections can help students with everyday stressors such as scoring poorly on a test, fighting with family members, or worrying about a friendship. Brooks Bacon, a Peer Leader in his junior year, explained how Sources of Strength helped the cross country team deal with a critical loss.

"Last semester, we had a regional race. Our top two runners didn't race [because of injuries], and that was hard for our team because we didn't make it to State, and that was our goal for the whole season," said Bacon. "At the time, we were very sad and didn't feel empowered, but now looking back, it bonded us as a team because we all figured out how to work together and be better. [We used] Positive Friends and Healthy Activities because running helps and teamwork helps."

Bacon's cross country teammate and fellow Peer Leader, junior Campbell Cantalamessa, uses the Sources of Strength daily: "[It helps me deal with] the stress of school and what it puts on my friends and myself. I think it's important to show them you're there for them, even if it's just a simple text each day."

However useful Sources of Strength can be during daily stress and challenges; its ultimate goal is preventing youth suicide. Fournier has experienced first-hand what a world without Sources of Strength can look like.

"Before high school, one of my friends took his own life," said Fournier. "I joined Sources of Strength mostly because I just wanted to help other people [so they know] they're not alone and [something like that] never occurs again."

Peer Leaders Present to DCSD Counselors

Programs like Sources of Strength are sorely needed in Colorado schools. According to a recent study published by the United Health Foundation, Colorado's teen suicide rate increased 58 percent between 2016 and 2019 -- double the national rate. However, suicide is preventable. Four out of five teens who attempted to end their lives gave clear invitations for others to engage with them. Every moment friends and family observe a warning sign is an additional moment of hope.
When programs like Sources of Strength empower students to help one another, the community as a whole provides more significant support for at-risk teens. Fournier, for example, feels like the tools she's learned from Sources of Strength have helped her better support her friends on a day-to-day basis.

"I was always trying to be supportive, but I didn't know how to support a friend. I didn't know how to get them the outlets to support themselves," said Fournier. "[Now] I tell people about the different sources they can use and say, 'Let's go to do a healthy activity or go hang out with some positive friends.'"

Although Sources of Strength can be helpful in acute times of crisis, it also has a massive impact on building emotional resilience and coping skills over time. Eric Mullens, a school counselor at Chaparral High School, explained that the effects of the program are seen in small daily decisions.

"Every once in a while someone struggles and [the Peer Leaders] help remind their friends what their strengths are, all the different parts of the wheel," said Mullens. "So when they get to those tough times, they can get through it. It's all about making positive decisions [just] like 2,200 people making a positive decision to be safe today."

But a program like Sources of Strength doesn't happen overnight or in one small isolated group of people. It becomes inseparable from the school's culture as a whole. Chaparral High School's motto is "Take Care of One Another," and students and staff alike refer to the building as the "Chap Fam," short for Chaparral Family. A freshman entering Chaparral High School will experience Sources of Strength as a major component of what it means to be part of this new family.

So, on the first day of school, the Peer Leaders perform a suicide prevention presentation for the new students. On Tuesday, March 10, the Peer Leaders got in some early practice by giving that same presentation to a counselor meeting at Crossroads Community Church in Parker.

Fournier, Bacon, and Cantalamessa were joined by sophomore Hope Ingalls and senior Kara Allen in sharing which parts of the Sources of Strength wheel they had benefited from the most. Fournier touched on how Family Support and Spirituality helped her after the loss of her friend. At the same time, Bacon and Cantalamessa spoke on Positive Friends and Healthy Activities.

"Brooks has been my best friend since sixth grade," said Cantalamessa, looking across the stage with a smile. "We've always been Positive Friends for each other. Now we get to share that positivity with others."

Peer Leaders Teach the "Supermodel" Cheer
Mullens and additional school counselors joined in the presentation by communicating available resources and providing concrete steps on what students should do when they suspected a friend was in trouble -- tell an adult at home, tell an adult at school, use Text-A-Tip, use Safe2Tell, or call 911.

"We're Chap Family," asserted school counselor Lea McAvoy. "And families take care of one another."

Among the audience were school counselors interested in bringing Sources of Strength to their buildings or strengthening a program already in place, such as Mariah Bennett of Meadow View Elementary and Brianna Roth of Mountain View Elementary.

"I really resonated with the stories the high school students shared," said Roth. "Just how they put the pillars into action and found the strengths they had inside of them or around them."

Currently, sixteen other Sources of Strength programs have developed or are beginning in other high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools in Douglas County School District (DCSD).

"Chaparral is so intentional about the program so that every kid not only has exposure to Sources of Strength but also chances to interact with it directly," said Jamie Montoya De-Smidt, Prevention Coordinator for DCSD. "It's definitely at a national standard level."

Montoya De-Smidt heads Team Universal Prevention (Team U.P.), which helps Sources of Strength programs grow in schools. Senior Sources of Strength Trainers Kimberly Moore and Ann Rusin-Egnor have been active partners in supporting the program at Chaparral High School.

Sources of Strength is gaining traction around DCSD as staff witness the effectiveness of the program and students discover the benefits for themselves.

“[Sources of Strength] shows other people that high school can be a positive thing,” recounted Cantalamessa. “People are here for each other at Chaparral. I think that’s important to show that.”

Resources on suicide prevention:
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