As recently as 2016, Mercer County was among the three New Jersey counties with the greatest rate of suicide attempts and self-inflicted injuries among people aged 10 to 24 years old, according to the state Suicide Report from the Department of Children and Family.
In just under a two-year span from early 2016 to later 2017, seven suicides were confirmed to be teenagers that either lived or attended school in the county.
These troubling numbers—just as much as the stories behind them—drove school district administrators in Mercer County to action. More specifically, they created a novel call to action. Legislation was proposed and passed last year that connected 10 Mercer County school district superintendents to a Call to Action to prevent youth suicides.
Since then, the conglomerate has hosted a series of events: a presentation at Rider University intended to kick off a countywide focus on student mental health last January, a discussion on support at the College of New Jersey last May, and now, an effort to learn how to apply best practices through a program next month.
On April 24, the call-to-action team, in collaboration with the Traumatic Loss Coalition, will host a free presentation by former Stanford University dean and author Julie Lythcott-Haims at Robbinsville High School. Lythcott-Haims, a once-featured speaker in a TED Talk presentation, is the author of the best-selling parenting book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.
Robbinsville School District superintendent Kathie Foster said that Lythcott-Haims’ work highlights proven strategies for fostering children’s resiliency, self-direction, and emotional well-being.
“While we always have to navigate mandates, our main focus is always helping develop resilient, mentally-healthy young adults.”
“She also highlights how to navigate the “college arms-race” and having families create their own definition of success,” Foster said in a statement.
In her presentation and Q&A session, Lythcott-Haims is expected to talk about practices to properly navigate common teenage student stressors such as the “college arms-race” and the burdens of academic success.
Having a keen awareness of these issues is something officials in the Ewing Public School have been focusing on in recent years.
Superintendent Michael Nitti earlier this year presented the school board Board with an update on district’s initiatives to promote emotionally and psychologically healthy students.
He said that since September 2017, the district’s Post-Secondary Task Force has focused on the social-emotional wellness of Ewing’s students. A group of stakeholders with relevance and expertise have met to talk about issues impacting student’s mental health.
The task force has read scholarly and media articles devoted to the topic, and had presentations from staff members on related topics. Focus has included the impact of educational practices on student anxiety and stress and an examination of programs that the district offers that promote emotionally healthy children.
From this group’s efforts, a number of positive events and experiences have evolved. Nitti said that perhaps most noteworthy, Ewing is a leader in the county-wide initiative focused on teen suicide prevention and adolescent wellness.
During his presentation, Nitti touched on a variety of educational practices and professional development efforts to promote healthy children and reduce anxiety and stress.
These included classroom programs like Mindfulness, Yoga for Classroom, Yoga for Adolescents, Sheltered Instruction Practice for ELLs, Traumatic Sensitive Discipline and Executive Functioning, as well as various professional development workshops. The district has also increased its Opioid Awareness training through seminars, its partnership with the ASSYST Program, and by bringing in the Mercer County Prosecutors to speak to students.
Nitti also said that the district has added new staff to address student wellness issues, including new guidance counselors at Antheil and Ewing High School, a new dean of students at the O’Brien Academy and new school security coordinators at EHS and Antheil.
“While we always have to navigate mandates, our main focus is always our mission, and the most important part of that mission is helping develop resilient, mentally-healthy young adults,” Nitti said.
“We know kids have suffered in the past, whether it was embarrassment or pain, or something else, but nothing was reported to us.”” said Hopewell Valley School District Superintendent Thomas Smith, who grew up in Ewing as close friends with Nitti, and continues to work with him closely on this initiative.
Early on—when statistics were at their most troubling and upsetting stories of students trying and failing to cope were coming to light—the Call to Action was getting mixed reactions.
Smith recalls people suggesting that more problems could possibly come from their efforts to raise awareness. As these presentations have continued, he’s learned it’s the opposite: people suffering in silence are now welcoming their support.
“This is all about raising healthier students, in healthier schools,” he said.