Miller Middle School students gathered eagerly in the school’s auditorium Friday to calm down their breath and color together, practices intended to improve school culture and bolster mental health.
The students gathered as part of Sources of Strength, a program intended to prevent suicide by teaching students to develop strengths they can draw on during challenging times. Rather than raising awareness about signs of crisis, the program intends to give students tools to recover from struggles.
“I think it’s needed, not just in our youth culture but across La Plata County,” said Sarah St. John, a school counselor at Miller.
Suicide is a growing problem across the nation, state and locally. From 2015 through 2017 in Colorado, there were 222 suicide deaths among 10- to 18-year-olds, according to a January report from the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.
La Plata County has also seen clusters of youth suicide deaths in recent years, raising community concerns.
Last year, the Attorney General’s Office offered La Plata County schools grant funding to introduce Sources of Strength because of the rising number of reports from local students about suicide to a statewide hotline. The program was introduced in Durango School District 9-R middle and high schools. Bayfield High School and Animas High School also introduced the program.
Sources of Strength emphasizes eight strengths: family support, spirituality, positive friends, mentors, healthy activities, generosity, medical access and mental health.
Miller Middle School focused on generosity and healthy activities in the first year of the program, St. John said.
In the fall, students practiced generosity by holding a canned food drive and writing kind messages to other students on sticky notes, such as: “I hope you ace your next test,” St. John said.
As part of practicing healthy activities Friday, students made smoothies, played basketball games and jumped rope. Peer leaders helped to organize Sources of Strength activities and learn about the strengths so they can teach others.
Sixth grader Sidnie Sohles, 13, said she wanted to help lead activities because she has struggled with her own mental health.
“I want to be there for people who struggle and need help,” she said.
One of the keys to the program’s success is selecting peer leaders across the social spectrum, said Scott LoMurray, deputy director of Sources of Strength, previously. The idea is not to train students to be junior psychologists and counselors, but to help them be agents of social change.
Sixth grader Ryan Dugan, 12, said healthy activities, such as football, basketball and wrestling, help him deal with his stress and anger.
“I love being outside. I love being physical,” he said.
Peer leader and sixth grader Nove Tocco, 12, said he appreciates that the program isn’t exclusive.
“Everyone is having fun,” he said, in a gym filled with flying basketballs and spinning jump ropes.