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‘Mental illness is not a red demon’

Topeka Capital Journal - 2/9/2020

DODGE CITY — “The stigma and the shame stops here,” Dodge City High School counselor Melanie Scott said at an all-staff mental health training conference in the school Feb. 6. “Mental illness is not a red demon. You can work through it if you don’t avoid it.”

Together with DCHS Principal Jacque Feist and counselor Jennifer Mendoza, Scott was the front woman for what assistant superintendent of secondary education Matt Turner described as a very intentional district-wide effort to accept mental health.

“We, as a building, are going to teach students to be the victor, and not the victim, of mental illness through self care,” Scott said. “We need to empower students with education that will give them hope they can cope with, and recover from, mental illness. Hope is so important these days.”

Scott designed the conference to teach teachers about mental health to help them work through their own issues with mental health acceptance so they can prepare to roll out new information to students during their open period this school semester and next.

Many teachers expressed concern with the fact they would have to introduce new information to students during open period, which they consider a sacred time to devote to one-on-one tutoring and small-group instruction.

“I know this is uncomfortable for some of you,” Mendoza said. “But be real with the kids. It doesn’t hurt to be a little vulnerable. Let them know you are a person, too. Say, ‘I know about as much as you do about this, but let’s learn it together’”

Dodge City lost three teenagers to suicide between 2015 and 2016, according to statistics from Compass Behavioral Health. That was when the superintendent at that time reached out to Director Richard Falcon for help.

A 2019 study of Ford County high schools by Kansas Communities That Care reported that more than one out of every five students here have seriously considered suicide, and that 0.5 out of five have tried to kill themselves.

That roughly translates to 400 high school students out of 2,000 here have thought about suicide, Falcon said.

This conference was just one part of a “very intentional action plan to get to the heart of the problem by providing more than just suicide hotline phone numbers,” Turner said.

“A couple of years ago we were being asked, ‘Why aren’t we doing anything about this?’” she said. “This is what we’re doing about it.”

Whitney Carter, Dodge City Daily Globe