TWIN FALLS — South Hills Middle School will participate in a nationwide program aiming to help students cope with life’s challenges and prevent suicide.
The Twin Falls campus is among 17 in Idaho — and the only one in south-central Idaho — to receive a Sources of Strength grant for next school year through the Idaho State Department of Education, in partnership with the Idaho Lives Project.
It helps middle and high schoolers identify coping skills and to learn how to reach out to others when they’re struggling. Peer mentors receive training and then lead activities and outreach at their schools.
“It does focus on suicide prevention, but it is also the wellness part of it, (dealing) with social issues, bullying, substance abuse and violence,” South Hills Middle School counselor Sheri Remming said.
The school will receive $2,400 to implement the program, and it will likely receive additional training every other year after that.
Sources of Strength launched in 1998 in North Dakota in partnership with rural communities and tribal groups. Since then, it has expanded to other states and has been in Idaho for about five years.
More than 50 Idaho schools have received grants, including Heritage Academy in Jerome, middle and high schools in Minidoka County, Burley Junior High School, Cassia Junior/Senior High School, Declo High School and Silver Creek High School in Hailey.
There’s a need. Idaho had the eighth highest suicide rate in the United States in 2016, with a total of 351 deaths, according to the Suicide Prevention Action Network of Idaho.
About 22 percent of youth here in the Gem State reported seriously considering suicide last year and nearly 10 percent made at least one attempt. In total, 105 school children committed suicide between 2012 and 2016.
For many children, the middle school years are a challenge.
“This is where they are really developing how to get along with a large group of people, and they’re intermixing through seven different classes and seven different teachers, and it can be a really difficult time for a lot of kids,” Remming said.
South Hills is a brand new school, which opened in August 2017, and its motto is “together we are one.”
“I truly believe in that,” Remming said. “This program will just expand on that motto. It will help the school come together as a whole to change peer social norms” such as not talking about problems or not telling adults when something is wrong.
The Sources of Strength program will help build trust, she said, and ensure students have at least one adult at school — whether a teacher, cafeteria worker, custodian or another employee — who they can talk with.
Teachers will nominate students to serve as peer mentors to help lead the program. “We want a large demographic,” Remming said, representing all social groups — not just straight “A” students or athletes.
South Hills has 616 students and is aiming for 50-55 peer leaders next school year. Once students receive training, “a lot of it is just building those relationships and connectedness because it is community bonding-type activities,” Remming said. Adult advisers help guide them through the process.
“The peers are the ones who make the program,” she said.
Burley Junior High is finishing its third year of Sources of Strength. It has helped with addressing a difficult topic that often wasn’t talked about before, school counselor Liza Castaneda said, and trying to build a foundation to help students with whatever challenges they face.
“It’s focused on hope and strength, not on the trauma,” she said.
It’s also about prevention, Castaneda said. “I’ve enjoyed the fact that kids are breaking the codes of silence that they have and coming to talk.”
The program helps with “normalizing the fact that life can be tough, but the hope, help and strength is there,” she said.
It also normalizes that mental health concerns are real concerns, Castaneda said. It aims to help students understand if a peer has a broken leg, for example, they’d call an adult for help. The same, she said, should go for mental health.