An Edmonton made suicide prevention pilot program out of the University of Alberta is being credited with saving young lives. Research shows it reduced potential suicide in Red Deer, Alberta by half, where between 2013 and 2014, 6 young people took their lives. Research shows the Empathy program significantly reduced depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts in students. The program ran from 2013 to 2015 and was offered to more than 6,000 students from grades 6 to 12 in the Red Deer, Alberta area.
When psychiatrist Peter Silverstone heard about the suicides, he approached Red Deer public schools about implementing the program. The first step was to have students complete a confidential survey. Some of the questions were very direct, like “Are you feeling like killing yourself in the next two weeks?” It turns out 1 in 20 kids said yes. “Every classroom had one child who at that time was actively suicidal. That is really scary” according to Peter Silverstone. The highest risk students were then referred to a mental health therapist, and when their parents were notified, most had no idea their child was suffering silently in pain.
Maryam Mohammed, a student at Hunting Hills High School and one of the 6,000 students who did the survey and also took part in Part 2 of the program, Resiliency Classes said “They don’t want to tell anyone because they feel like they were going to be judged, and so they just keep a smile on their face.” Sherri Bunt, former social worker and now Community Liason Worker for Hunting Hills High School said “sometimes it’s self talk, talking to yourself and telling yourself it will be okay.” Sherri taught the lessons at Hunting Hills High School about controlling reactions to negative events, communication and about overcoming social anxiety. “Building that self esteem and confidence so that they are able to walk into a conversation, kind of nonchalantly and start making those relationships that they really need.”
The study showed the percentage of students who were actively suicidal had dropped from 4.4% in 2013 to 2.8% in 2015, and rates of anxiety, depression and thoughts of self harm also decreased significantly. Maryam has anxiety about moving to Toronto later this year, but says her new skills will help. “Don’t overreact, you’re fine, you’re going to get through this and everything is going to be okay.” Middle school students were offered courses in mental health training while high school students who showed severe depression or suicidal thoughts received access to professional help.
“With the school boards active participation, we switched some of the health classes to mental health training and resilience classes” psychiatry professor Peter Silverstone said. “What this shows is that if you put this program into schools, you change kids fundamentally, and these changes last well over a year.” Stu Henry, Red Deer Public Schools Superintendent said “I think our world is more complicated than it has ever been and it is hard on kids. We see more and more of them presenting with complex mental health issues. So for us to be able to address that issue and tackle it with a really comprehensive approach is powerful.”
The study also indicated the use of drugs, alcohol and incidents of bullying decreased among students who participated in the program. Empathy ended in 2015 after a loss of funding, but Red Deer Public Schools said it’s continued to use parts of the program. The school district will also have mental health therapists in its schools as a new pilot project that starts next year.