NORTH FORSYTH -- Kristin Iler knows what it’s like to hurt so desperately that it feels as if taking her own life is the only way out.
But she now knows that it is not. And the teenager wants to share that knowledge with her peers.
Iler, a junior at North Forsyth High School, created a petition requesting Forsyth County Schools to bring the topic of suicide to the classroom.
The petition comes, in part, in response to a recent suicide that touched Iler. A 15-year-old boy and former Forsyth County resident, who would have turned 16 on Sept. 7, took his life Aug. 16.
Although Iler didn’t know the teen personally, she said many of her friends knew him and were deeply affected by his passing.
And yet, she said, it hasn’t been publicly talked about in school.
“Know that other students care”
“I started a petition to allow suicide to be spoken about freely in schools,” Iler said. “It should be talked about more by faculty and students because it’s a tender subject. And as much as they don’t want to admit that it’s taboo, it is.”
Just 10 hours after creating the petition on Change.org, a website for appeals such as this, Iler had already received more than 300 signatures. Within a day, news of the petition had reached North administrators.
“They called me into a meeting in the middle of class, and it was the head counselor of my school, the principal – Mr. Cheney – and my assistant principal, Ms. Oliver. They were very helpful, actually, and I appreciated what they did. Rather than resenting me, they were like, ‘what do you want to do? We want to incorporate you if you feel this passionately about something,’” Iler said.
For years, schools have had suicide prevention and intervention policies, according to Debbie Smith, director of student support services for the district.
However, in the last few years, Smith said the county has been ramping up its efforts and changing the way suicide is handled, beginning by implementing postvention strategies to help peers, families and friends of children and teens who complete suicide.
It is unclear if schools were aware the 15-year-old former Forsyth County resident had taken his life.
Statewide, the topic is also garnering attention.
In 2015, Gov. Nathan Deal signed House Bill 198, requiring all school systems to provide annual suicide prevention education training to staff.
In response, State School Superintendent Richards Woods issued the GADOE Model Policy for Suicide Awareness, Prevention, Intervention and Postvention.
The 20-plus page policy defines schools’ requirements under state law and creates specific action plans for suicide attempts and ideation, as well as steps to take if an attempt is successful. It also provides numerous resources for educators and staff, all of whom must receive yearly training.
The policy and trainings, however, don’t touch on potential student-based programs, nor do they suggest there be educational programs for students.
That is why, in part, Iler started the petition.
“It primarily started as a suicide prevention club that I wanted to start for the school, [but] evolved into, like, a student support group,” she said. “Not just for emotional support, but family support and even academic support. At North, we want students to know that other students care about them and care about their successes as much as they care about their own, and that there are people that are willing to reach out and help.”
More than 900 people have signed Iler’s petition, and she said the number keeps growing.
“Recovery is possible”
Smith, who has spoken with Iler about the appeal, praised Iler’s efforts and drive to push the issue.
However, as a trained professional, Smith also emphasized that if done incorrectly and without professional oversight and structure, groups – such as the one Iler has in mind – can instill fear in teens and have detrimental effects.
Still, she said, school counselors and staff realize that a student-based, student-focused program could be beneficial.
She added there may be a plan in the works – with Iler’s involvement – to partner with the YMCA and provide some sort of leadership training to students.
Regardless, Iler said she wants to emphasize that suicide – or an attempt – will not fix anything, but that reaching out and getting help will.
“I want students to know that recovery is possible and the feeling of recovery is so much better, and so much more rewarding than the feeling of wanting to die or sadness,” she said. “I’m a great example for that. I’m living proof.”