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Handpicked by their teachers, Discovery Canyon Campus Middle School (DCCMS) students reported to the school’s library with the goal of becoming a Peer Leader through the district’s Sources of Strength and Suicide Prevention program.

“These students were chosen for a reason,” said Julie Hendrickson, Health and Wellness Specialist at Academy District 20 (ASD20). “Someone in their building saw them as a student who can make a positive change in their school community.”

The training is a researched-based suicide prevention health and wellness model.

“The program uses the power of peer social networks to strengthen healthy norms and school cultures, which will prevent suicide, bullying, and substance abuse,” Hendrickson explained.

Sixth through eighth graders sat in a circle and were promptly asked to break the ice with a smelly activity. “Everyone take off a shoe, and throw it in the middle of the room,” Brittany Nosker, a school counselor instructed.

Even though noses squirmed at the emanating shoe stench, students erupted in laughter. Nosker asked, “Did some of you feel nervous or anxious about throwing your shoes?”

What started as a game to put students on a level playing field melted their nervousness and prepared them to open up for the day-long training. Conversations included student stressors, and trusted adults. But the most valuable discussion came when students were prompted to discuss the warning signs of suicide.

“In the past, it was often thought if we talked about suicide, it would lead to more adolescents completing suicide, but research shows that when we talk about it, suicide rates decrease,” Hendrickson explained.

After lunch, students discussed suicide warning signs and how to ask an adult for help. Hendrickson said, “We are not asking students to be mental health professionals, but rather someone who knows the warning signs, risk factors and knows how to connect them to an adult.”

When students finish the training, they’re encouraged to share their newfound tool kit with their friends.

“Peer leaders are four times more likely seek a trusted adult than students who are not trained in Sources of Strength,” Hendrickson explained.

All secondary schools in ASD20 have completed the training or are scheduled to hold a training during the 2022-23 school year.

“Becoming a Peer Leader gives students a power in their voices and actions to be an agent of change and spread messages of hope, help, and strength,” Hendrickson said.