Letting kids know it’s OK to talk about suicide and what their role can be if someone has trouble dealing with life are two goals of a new interactive play touring high schools along Colorado’s Front Range.
“Ghosted” explores teen depression, anxiety, anger and suicidal thoughts over the course of a typical day at school. It’s being presented by health insurer Kaiser Permanente, the state’s largest nonprofit health plan, which has committed to improving mental health in schools and communities.
No high schools in El Paso or Teller counties had signed up for the free 40-minute play, which includes an interactive discussion and classroom presentation, said Brian Harper, Kaiser Permanente Colorado’s lead for “Ghosted.”
In the six weeks since the play began making the rounds at schools in Littleton, Fort Collins, Greeley and metro Denver, students have said they identify with the play’s four characters, played by actors who have had personal experiences with the mental health issues being portrayed.
So, when students pose questions or comment on the play afterward, Harper said actors will respond with examples of how they’ve coped with stress and what has gotten them through tough moments.
“Young people are the experts in this; they’re part of the solution,” Harper said.
During the play, one of the characters, Syd, experiences a full-blown panic attack in class. She talks about how the overwhelming feelings left her nervous, sweaty and breathing heavily.
“A lot of students said, ‘I’ve reacted that way,’” Harper said. “There’s a real-life connection.”
The one-hour, small-group discussions in class with the actors, who are trained in trauma-informed response, focus on suicide prevention. Topics include the important of connection with each other and with resources.
“We guide students on how to have those conversations, peer to peer, and help a friend going through a traumatic moment,” Harper said. “We call out the importance that they don’t have to be anything other than a friend. They don’t have to fix things or take on the role of a therapist or counselor.”
What students can do for friends is link them to trusted adults, such as faith leaders, coaches, teachers or bosses, and other community assistance, he said.
Kaiser Permanente added the classroom component based on requests from schools in Colorado, where suicide has been a growing concern.
Death by suicide among Colorado youths ages 15-19 increased 58% from 2016 through 2018 — the largest increase of all states, according to the recently released America’s Health Rankings Health of Women and Children Report.
In El Paso County, however, teen suicide decreased by 46.7% in that age group over that period, according to El Paso County Public Health. A communitywide approach to suicide prevention that started a few years ago is being attributed, in part, to the decline.
“Ghosted,” which originated in Seattle, is one of many tools schools are using to improve students’ social-emotional wellness and help prevent adolescent suicide, Harper said.
“Those conversations may start with us, but we want them to end with the resources in the community,” he said. “We’re part of the solution, but it’s going to take the whole community — schools, mental health professionals, outside organizations, teachers, coaches, neighbors, parents.”
The play and classroom discussion are being offered to Colorado schools at no cost through Nov. 22 and again from Jan. 23 to May 1. Teachers also receive resource materials and students get wallet cards with crisis call and text lines.
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