Broad, sustained youth suicide response planned in Fox Valley

Youth crisis expert teaches parents, teachers key tools


By Michael Louis Vinson
May 15, 2011

KAUKAUNA — Two years after the first of at least seven teen deaths by suicide in the Fox Cities since May 2009, youth crisis expert Dr. Scott Poland led about 100 parents in a community forum at Kaukauna High School designed to equip them with tools to stay connected to their children and prevent future deaths.

“Don’t make a sweeping conclusion or generalization based on what you think you know about one situation,” Poland told the audience on Wednesday night. “We need to be focusing on something that’s happened hundreds or even thousands of times (across the country).”

Poland’s presentation capped a daylong symposium with educators and parents that marked the beginning of what is being billed as a sustained, community-wide response to the suicides.

“It’s just not about today,” said the Rev. Amy Bertschausen, a founding member of Connected Community, a new coalition of about 40 representatives from organizations across the Fox Cities, including clergy, public safety officials and medical personnel. The group formed Feb. 11 to develop a strategy to prevent future youth suicides.

While today’s work with Dr. Poland is very important, it’s going to be more than that,” Bertschausen said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference. “It’s not just bringing in a national speaker. It’s a collaborative, comprehensive approach.

Connected Community is focused around six core areas: community research; student screenings to identify at-risk youth; support for at-risk youth; best practices for prevention; community education; and funding.

“Many Fox Valley adults struggle with the tragic loss of a loved one through suicide, however the challenge is especially difficult for adolescents, who lack life experience that can help build resiliency and coping skills,” Bertschausen explained. “These challenges have especially affected the Kaukauna community. (Suicides there) have directly impacted students and educators at the city’s high school, leaving permanent scars, immeasurable grief and a resolve to prevent future incidents.”

She quickly added, “It’s not just a Kaukauna thing. It’s a Heart of the Valley thing, it’s a Fox Cities thing, it’s a northeast Wisconsin thing.”

Poland, a nationally renowned expert on youth suicide, said such a large-scale community approach is the best antidote to suicide clusters.

“I am really amazed by all the things that have been done in this community and all the people that have come together representing various disciplines and realizing that it takes a partnership,” Poland said. “In the aftermath of suicide contagion, I can summarize the literature in one sentence: ‘It takes a village.’ No single entity (could) provide all of the (support) needed to prevent further suicides.”

Poland added that community members should avoid the blame game as they seek healing and understanding amid fear and frustration.

“I don’t believe there should be any blame placed on the community or the schools,” Poland said at the news conference. “Suicide is actually very complex. … It’s everyone’s fault, but yet it’s no one’s fault.”

In addition to community-wide education about suicidal warning signs, Poland said removing lethal means is one of the most effective ways to combat youth suicide.

“In America, making the gun less accessible to a depressed, angry, impulsive, substance-abusing young person is very, very important,” he explained.

As Connected Community moves forward, the next phase of programming includes a depression screening for Fox Valley students to identify at-risk youth.

“What gets measured gets managed,” said Karen Johnston, director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Green Bay, who leads Connected Community’s screening committee. “(You have to know) what you’re dealing with and then hook families and kids up with proper referrals beyond that to get the help that they need.”