Heritage Academy

A view of Heritage Academy charter school in Jerome.

TIMES-NEWS FILE PHOTO

JEROME — Students and employees at Heritage Academy in Jerome will get training starting this fall on ways to help prevent suicide and bullying.

It’s among 10 Idaho schools to receive a $2,400 grant from the Idaho Department of Education, in partnership with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

Money will be used for training over two years to implement Sources of Health, a mental health wellness program. It helps middle and high schoolers cultivate a set of strengths research shows can be helpful for coping with life’s challenges.

“It teaches students what they need to know about themselves and life, because everybody is going to have a tough time emotionally at some point,” said Jennifer Dickey, program director for the Idaho Lives Project.

And there’s a need.

Nearly 20 percent of Idaho youth at public schools in 2015 reported seriously considering suicide, according to the Suicide Prevention Action Network of Idaho.

About 10 percent reported making one or more attempts.

Idaho ranked fifth in the nation in 2015 for the highest suicide rate — 57 percent higher than the nationwide average.

And the rural nature of the state sometimes hinders families from accessing mental health services.

Sources of Strength was launched in 1998 in North Dakota in partnership with rural communities and tribal groups. Since then, it has expanded to other states and it has been in Idaho for four years.

It’s not just “another club or community service organization,” Dickey said, but a chance for students to learn resilience skills they can carry into their adult lives.

“It isn’t that we can avoid stress or emotional crises,” she said. “We need to figure out how we can get through times like that.”

In total, 49 Idaho schools have already received grants, including Minidoka County middle and high schools, Burley Junior High School, Cassia Junior/Senior High School, Declo High School and Silver Creek High School in Hailey.

Heritage Academy superintendent Christine Ivie wasn’t available to comment by phone Monday.

But in an email to the Times-News, she wrote she has observed successes at other schools through Sources of Strength.

“We are excited to be part of the new cohort for Sources of Strength,” Ivie said. “Our goal is to help our students become successful, resilient individuals. Sources of Strength allows them to develop strong interpersonal skills, healthy relationships and positive coping skills to help them in school, career opportunities and life.”

In February, the public charter school gave its students a 10-question Adverse Childhood Experience survey. It drew criticism from some parents and community members, who said questions were inappropriate for young students.

But administrators say the survey was useful and found 70 percent of students scored a three or higher — meaning they’ve experienced at least three stressful life situations such as sexual abuse, witnessing domestic violence or going without meals.

Heritage Academy will receive training on the Sources of Strength from the Idaho Lives Project.

School employees will learn about youth suicide data, warning signs and how to intervene. Youth leaders will be trained on how to recognize their sources of strength and provide help for their peers.

Then, the school will implement activities and programs — referred to as “campaigns” — to teach other students and the community about how to cultivate those strengths.

One example of a campaign is a thankfulness challenge. Students are encouraged to find something to be thankful for three times a day for 21 days.

The Sources of Strength program also encourages students to do something if they hear a classmate say they’re considering suicide.

“It’s very much about learning when it’s correct and OK to go get someone else and get an adult,” Dickey said.

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Burley Junior High just finished its second year of the program. Even though it won’t receive more grant money, school leaders plan to keep the effort going.

The eight strengths include healthy activities, family support and positive friends.

The most important one is mentors, school counselor Liza Castaneda said, meaning students should “have a trusted adult to come and talk to.”

There’s also a focus on generosity — how students can draw strength from helping others, she said.

Burley Junior High usually picks one strength to focus on each month, and offers two or three activities around it.

It can be something as simple as sending a note and candy to students with a reminder about the strength of the month, Castaneda said.

She’d like to get the program out into the community more and partner with a local hospital system. She’s also interested in eventually holding a Sources of Strength week at the school.

Sources of Strength began in Idaho as a result of a $1.29 million federal grant through the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act. The three-year effort aimed at helping 10 to 24-year-olds.

The federal grant wasn’t available again. Instead, state legislators appropriated nearly $1 million for suicide prevention efforts.

This fall, 20 schools applied for funding to implement the Sources of Strength program.

Factors behind the grant decisions included why the school needs the program, why it’s a good fit and whether the school could sustain it.

As more schools continue to adopt the initiative, there’s a bigger picture in mind. Dickey said: “The goal is to eventually get all Idaho schools trained on Sources of Strength.”

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