Walking for wellness

River Hills Church members, from left, Asia Crow, Morgan Sandler, Pastor Dennis Virta, Sara Sandler, Chris Sandler and Lauren Sandler joined the Sauk Prairie Wellness Alliance’s Stomp Out Stigma walk Nov. 15 to show their support for a growing movement to raise awareness about mental illness.

When it comes to mental health disorders, silence can be a killer.

A growing number of Sauk Prairie residents are determined to raise their voices about the issues.

About 170 people gathered Nov. 15 at Sauk Prairie High School for a two-mile Stomp Out Stigma walk sponsored by the Sauk Prairie Wellness Alliance, which recently formed to raise awareness about mental health issues.

Another group formed last month under the direction of the 6:8 service organization co-director John Ramthun. The group doesn’t yet have a name, but Ramthun said clergy and volunteers from the area will create a coalition to discuss mental health and suicide prevention.

The movement ramped up following the June suicide of Sauk Prairie High School student Anna Block.

Block’s death continues to resonate with students and staff alike.

A heavier emphasis has been placed on improving mental health services for students. Sauk Prairie High School principal Chad Harnisch said there have been seven suicides since September 2014 among people with connections to the district, including parents of students and recent graduates of the school.

The deaths have led to more intensive training for administrators and staff and a willingness to talk openly about the topic.

Call to action

“When I first started teaching and we had a death from suicide, we didn’t talk about it,” Harnisch said.” I’ve unfortunately spent a large portion of the last six months reading specifically about suicide response and suicide prevention and there are triggers for suicide. People kill themselves because of a trigger from an underlying mental health disorder.”

The need for increased mental health training in the district was highlighted in a Dane County Youth Assessment survey offered in the spring to students from seventh to 12th grade.

Of the 693 student responses to that survey, 152 said they’ve thought about killing themselves in the past 12 months. Forty-three answered that they have attempted to kill themselves in the past 12 months.

Middle school principal Ted Harter said the responses are a call to action.

“What seems more significant is how students feel about themselves and handle their emotions,” Harter said. “We need to help them understand their emotions. We have students as young as three or four that are showing signs of anxiety and depression and significant mental health issues.”

Proactive measures

This month a group of nine teachers and administrators attended a three-day Advancing School Mental Health conference in New Orleans presented by the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

District superintendent Cliff Thompson said sending that many employees out of state to a large conference is expensive, but said it was a priority.

Administrators’ contracts allow them to attend to one national conference every three years. Thompson said some administrators forfeited that benefit so the money could be applied to airfare and the cost of the conference for those who attended.

Harter said one of the primary goals is to fill a gap between out-patient services and hospitalization for students receiving mental health treatment.

“There’s a fair amount of students that could benefit from some sort of more regular, consistent mental health support outside of the school building but don’t necessarily need to miss weeks of school to be in residential treatment facility,” Harter said.

Student services director Doug Yost said the Psychology Clinic in Prairie du Sac will hold office hours in the high school so students who seek counseling can receive the service on campus.

Growing support

Ramthun said his group meets Tuesday mornings and aims to develop an action plan to help people of all ages suffering from depression.

One of the first goals is to schedule a public training session using a suicide prevention program created by Dr. Paul Quinnitt of University of Washington School of Medicine.

The school district already had the training and plans to hold it again.

“In our first year, we want to bring (it) into churches and businesses,” Ramthun said. “Statistics show suicide is a larger issue for the adult rural community. How do we transfer what’s going on the school district and bring that to a rural adult community?”

Ramthun said another challenge is to get the word out that there is a large group of people who care about their neighbors and want to help.

“What are all the things we can do to show the community there are people that care?” Ramthun said. “The stigma around mental health and suicide is such that we don’t talk about it. There needs to be a good discussion of the spiritual element of human life and that we all have a purpose and we all have value.”

While the momentum to bring more awareness, services and help to those suffering from depression is building, Yost said there is no end in sight to the need.

“We will never be done,” Yost said. “We have to just keep working at getting better. I’m really pleased with what I’ve seen our community do. This community cares.”

News reporter, Capital Newspapers