Aliyah Austin

School district takes “slow and steady path” in mental illness initiative

February 16, 2017

“I’ll start,” a woman across from me said after a moment of silence. She sat upright and rested her arms on the round table. “I’m here because, in 2014, my brother took his life.”

The man to my right, Wade VanBragt, stared at his phone as we talked. He forced himself to look up when it was his turn.

“I lost my daughter, a teen, last March,” he said. His voice wavered and his eyes watered, but his face remained composed. “Her name is Kylie. I never knew she had any type of depression. March 21st. She was doing her homework, said love you, closed her door. Next morning she was gone.”

He showed us the picture he was staring at. A seventh-grader in a white tee-shirt watched me from his iPhone. Her indistinguishable gray-blue eyes were fierce, but weary. Her lips, smooth with maroon matte lipstick, were opened slightly as if she wanted to say something, then changed her mind.

I lost my daughter, a teen, last March. Her name is Kylie. I never knew she had any type of depression. March 21st. She was doing her homework, said love you, closed her door. Next morning she was gone.”

— Wade VanBragt

“She’s beautiful,” someone said.

“She didn’t think so,” VanBragt said. “From what I understand…I don’t even know why I’m here to be honest with you because there’s no answers.”

One by one, we went around the table and explained why we were attending the Jan. 9 Town Hall on Suicide. Since 2011, we’ve lost six students from 7th to 12th grade to death by suicide.

The Town Hall included two separate panels to discuss the problem and what’s being done to address mental illness in the community. The panel discussing what was being done included Beth Egge from the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) National Office, Sarah Lewakowski from TCM Counseling, Principal Tracy Wilson, Spring Lake High School Principal Mike Gilchrist and David Neal from the North Ottawa Community Health (NOCH) Emergency Room.

The latest developments have been implemented by the school district.

“I knew that we would need to do something with a population of 2,000 at Grand Haven High School and 100 at Central High School immediately because, in the fall of 2015, we had just recently lost our second young lady, which was our third death by suicide since 2011,” Wilson said. “We felt it very important to do something immediately with high school staff and students. In the fall of 2015, we kicked off our initiative and we have taken the slow and steady path in Grand Haven because it’s been very critical to us that we have a systematic pre-k through 12 focus that is also something that’s going to be sustainable.”

This year, they initiated a pre-k through four Second Step Program and five through eight and nine through 12 Mindfulness curriculums. The 2016-2017 school improvement lessons are focused largely on mindfulness as well.

With a grant received from 100 Women Who Care, the district re-implemented the 90-minute “Live, Love, Laugh” for freshmen and are currently continuing to research a “sustainable program.”

Several committees and clubs dedicated to improving the school’s environment have also formed. A parent committee called “You Matter” has partnered with the Team GH Committee to bring conversations to parents.

“Along with our parents, with TCM and other local agencies, we are making progress,” Wilson said. “I get typically a few times a month, an email or phone call from a parent saying thank you for doing what you’re doing because you’re giving kids the information. I got a telephone call last night and ‘I took my son or my daughter to the ER to be evaluated because of something my son or daughter put on their Facebook or Twitter or Instagram.’ Our kids aren’t afraid now to give that information to a trusted adult.”

A student committee dealing with David Staal’s book “Show Up” was created. In Wilson’s words, its purpose is to say “put down electronics, look at each other, show up for someone else for a moment or longer, you have no idea if the moment you show up for somebody will actually change the trajectory of their life.” Students also formed the Do Random Acts of Kindness (DoRAK) Club.

“Schools can’t be masters at mental health and education,” VanBragt said. “I can’t put the burden on our schools to cure the disease, but the schools should provide a safe atmosphere for students to learn without bullying in any shape or form. Zero tolerance. If the schools can provide a safe atmosphere, that would be one less battlefront children like my daughter would have to endure.”


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