Peer leaders and trusted adults work together for suicide prevention

Where science and sticky notes meet

Posted Sep 15, 2010

One of my indelible suicide prevention images is the "Wall of Trust" at Perry High School in New York. I saw a photograph of the wall at a conference. It's a circle of bright sticky notes. Each note has the name of a person in the school, either an adult or a student, who other students think can be trusted with some of the most important information in the school: who might be at risk for suicide.

The Wall of Trust was created as part of the Sources of Strength program, a nationally-recognized best practice in suicide prevention. The program was developed by a North Dakota man named Mark LoMurray, and has broken into the best practice ranks by demonstrating that it works.

What's different about Sources of Strength is that it acknowledges that traditional mental health services might not be available or acceptable to teens. The program trains influential students - leaders selected by their student peers, rather than nominated by adults, to recognize warning signs of suicide and refer teens to help. Help isn't always a mental health clinician - help might be one of the trusted adults, also selected by students, and could be anyone up to and including a math teacher or a lunchroom monitor.

Dr. Peter Wyman, with the University of Rochester Medical Center, will be leading a research team as they figure out what makes Sources of Strength so effective at changing school norms that influence teen help-seeking.

I'm excited about this new research opportunity for a number of reasons. One, I love that Sources of Strength was created by a regular person with a passion for suicide prevention in the laboratory of life, rather than a group of research scientists working with a homogenous test group of students. Just the same, I'm glad that the research community has taken notice of Sources of Strength, because the scientific stamp of approval is important.

More than saying, "We just know that this program works," research demonstrating a program's effectiveness can show why a program works. Also, Sources of Strength is not called something like "Suicide Prevention 101" - a name that might evoke screams of "stay away from me with your definitely boring and possibly scary suicide prevention information!" From the name to the way it encourages student-to-student and teen-to-teen interaction, it's about building something positive.

Building assets, or protective factors, or whatever term you want to apply to the good things that help teens grow into healthy adults, works not just to help prevent suicide, but might help prevent a number of other potential problems, like bullying and other school and community violence.

It's great to see a home-grown program make it big. It gives hope to all those sticky note-toting community organizers and youth workers that there are ways to be evidence-based and have a lot of fun at the same time.

Read more about the University of Rochester study here.

Copyright 2010 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved