Riverton • Parents showed up by the hundreds Monday to hear a national suicide-prevention expert speak at Jordan School District, a community alarmed by a spate of youth suicides this school year.
More than 200 parents, many with notebooks and pens in hand, attended the evening presentation in Riverton by Scott Poland, a psychology professor at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, on strategies for identifying and preventing youth suicide.
District staffers brought in Poland as part of their response to five students enrolled at Herriman High dying by suicide since summer. State officials also say they’re investigating several other youth suicide cases in that southwestern corner of Salt Lake County, though they noted it is too early to know whether the deaths are linked by anything other than location.
Poland assured families gathered at Riverton High School that their community was not alone in experiencing teen suicide, although Utah’s youth suicide rate remains worse than most other U.S. states.
“Suicide is about untreated or understated mental illness,” Poland said, adding that many people who are bullied do not attempt suicide.
In March, a response team of about 30 Jordan school administrators and health officials formed to focus on the problem. Herriman High has nine counselors and a psychologist helping students, and the Jordan Family Education Center is offering free counseling to school district patrons.
Recognizing when a child has experienced trauma and then responding appropriately is an important tool for parents, Poland said. He instructed parents to listen to their kids, not preach.
Poland, who met with groups of students and school staffers earlier in the day, said, “I asked the students today, ‘What do you want your parents to do better?’ They want you to listen. They want you to spend shared time together. No kid wants you to say, ‘Do this. Do that.’ It is really about listening.”
Some parents nodded at Poland’s advice and others lifted their smartphones to snap photos of his informational slides. Parent Rachel Heitz said Poland’s comment that bullying was not necessarily a cause of suicide was surprising.
Heitz’s husband, Ned Heitz, said Poland’s advice aimed directly at fathers to be more involved in the child-rearing process was affirming, adding that he coaches his teen daughter’s softball team in his spare time.
“I look at so many that don’t have a father figure,” Ned Heitz said. “I feel like I do a pretty good job, but my immediate thought was what about kids in a single [parent] home.”
Poland told parents that they need to be guardians of four “cabinets” in the home ― the medicine cabinet, the liquor cabinet, the gun cabinet and the internet.
He also said he wished he had done more in his career to support LGBT students, who have a higher risk of suicide than heterosexual youths.
More people need to learn the warning signs, Poland said — depression; out-of-character behavior; a preoccupation with death; or statements about feeling hopeless, helpless or worthless.
Most important, he said, parents should not be afraid to talk to their kids about suicide for fear of planting the idea.
“Understand that suicidal thoughts are situational,” Poland said, “and suicides can be prevented.”
Correction: Apr. 17, 3:30 p.m. — Suicide prevention expert Scott Poland met with parents in the Jordan School District Monday. Due to an editing error, a prior version of this story listed an incorrect day.