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The fight against suicide starts in the classroom

Utah’s students are counting on us, and we can’t let them down.

Catherine Voutaz, mother of Chandler Voutaz who killed himself on June 1, 2017, holds two wristbands that say “hope” and “suicide awareness” in her home on Friday, May 25, 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Cory had an infectious personality, a larger-than-life smile and a genuine sense of humor. He had a love for crazy socks, animal T-shirts and high-top Vans. Playful, friendly, compassionate and kind, he was the last person you would expect to take his own life.

Nothing — no previous tragedy, trial or sudden loss — can prepare you for the pain of losing a child to suicide. The grief is utterly paralyzing. Following my son’s death, I felt physically, emotionally and spiritually shattered. Inconsolable. Defeated. Angry. Confused. These words barely begin to describe a suffering that is beyond words.

Wrapped up in Cory were all the sweet memories of early motherhood, and I soon found myself reliving every one. I did this both to keep the memories close and to search them for clues — any sign I might have missed that my son was destined for suicide. I found none. Which only made this question all the more haunting: “What more could I have done to help my son?”

With time, that question became something different: “What can I do now to help parents and struggling kids and to prevent other families from experiencing this same tragedy?”

In truth, this is a question everyone in our state should be asking.

Why? Because Utah is facing a mental health crisis. The magnitude of this crisis is difficult to put into words, but the numbers speak for themselves. In the past decade, the youth suicide rate in our state has more than tripled. In fact, the problem is so serious that suicide is now the leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 17. Consider that the same year we lost Cory, 675 other families in Utah experienced the exact same tragedy.

No one should have to go through what I went through in losing a son to suicide. That’s why I have dedicated the past five years of my life looking for solutions. My partner in this effort has been David Kozlowski — a licensed marriage and family therapist who was meeting with Cory shortly before he passed away. Together, we started the Light the Fight podcast, which focuses on helping parents forge deeper connections with their kids by developing relationships built on honesty and trust. Through this podcast, we’ve reached thousands of parents in homes across the country; now, we want to open a new front in the battle against suicide by taking the fight to the classroom.

David has pioneered a pathbreaking program to do exactly that. Drawing on more than 21 years of youth counseling experience, he has developed a social health curriculum to bridge the gap between education and mental health.

The logic behind this program is straightforward: Our schools offer physical education courses to teach students how to take care of their bodies and physical health. It only makes sense, then, that schools would also offer courses to teach students how to take care of their minds and emotional health. We are, after all, in the midst of the worst mental health crisis our nation has ever seen. Shouldn’t our schools be actively engaged in the fight by offering students courses to help them navigate social media, complex relationships and the challenges of anxiety and depression? We sure think so — and this is where social health education can help.

The social health class David has created educates students on building, maintaining and improving relationships to help them optimize their mental, emotional and physical development. Strong interpersonal relationships are a bulwark against depression and suicide, which is why relationship-building is at the heart of this curriculum. It focuses specifically on strengthening relationships in four areas: friends, family, online connections and self.

Already, the social health curriculum has been met with widespread acclaim from both students and faculty at Herriman High School, where the program is being piloted for the first time. Of all Utah’s schools, Herriman has arguably been hit hardest by the teen suicide epidemic — so much so that The Wall Street Journal profiled the school in a story about the phenomenon of suicide clusters. The new administration at Herriman has been steadfastly committed to addressing this crisis, which is why they asked David to begin teaching social health courses last fall.

Although David launched the program only a few months ago, the social health curriculum has already drawn attention from both state and federal lawmakers. Earlier this month, the Hatch Center — the policy arm of the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation — hosted a webinar to spotlight the need for mental health education in public schools. The center invited both David and me to participate in the webinar, where we had the opportunity to highlight the benefits of social health education.

The thinking behind the curriculum was praised by David Huntsman — representing the Huntsman Mental Health Institute — as well as Rep. Chris Stewart, who went so far as to say that there might be a role for Congress to play in securing funding and resources for rural schools looking to implement similar programs.

For years, Utah’s leaders have fought valiantly to get ahead of the teen suicide crisis — and now, we have an opportunity to advance a curriculum tailor-made for students in need. That’s why as concerned Utahns, we call on the state legislature to create a pilot program for social health curriculum to be tested in our schools. If successfully implemented, this curriculum could benefit thousands of students struggling with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. Most importantly, it could help us flatten — and eventually invert — the curve of rising suicide rates in Utah.

Through stronger interpersonal relationships, our kids will have more access to the social and emotional support they need in moments of crisis. Utah’s students are counting on us, and we can’t let them down.

Heidi Swapp is a social health ambassador, the CEO of a craftmaking company and the mother of five children ages 13 to 23. David Kozlowski is a licensed marriage and family therapist, a social health consultant and a teacher at Herriman High School.