Washougal tackles suicide prevention

Grant will bring ‘Sources of Strength’ training to local schools

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Unite Washougal Community Coalition's Megan Kanzler (far right) participates in an activity with members of Washougal High School's PEP Unite! club. (Contributed photo courtesy of Margaret McCarthy)

Washougal School District students and educators will soon have access to a successful, nationwide youth suicide-prevention program known as “Sources of Strength,” thanks to a Washington State Department of Health grant awarded to the Unite! Washougal Community Coalition.

“We wanted something that was proven to be effective because we didn’t want to just ‘talk the talk’ — we wanted to ‘walk the walk,'” said Megan Kanzler, Unite! Washougal’s youth engagement coordinator, said of the Sources of Strength program.

Founded in 1998 in partnership with several Northern Plains tribes and rural communities in North Dakota, the Sources of Strength program utilizes trained peer leaders and focuses on building a support system designed to help students before they become “at risk” and in need of more direct suicide-prevention interventions.

School districts throughout the country, as well as several Native American and Canadian First Nations tribes have implemented the Sources of Strength program over the past decade and found success in lowering rates of teen suicide. In 2009, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center and American Foundation for Suicide Prevention listed the program on the “National Best Practices” registry.

“The data has proven (Sources of Strength) to be an effective suicide-prevention program, but it’s more than just a suicide prevention program, and that’s what really got us excited,” Kanzler said. “As we vetted it, we realized it’s a really good fit for Washougal’s social-emotional learning and growth.”

Washougal was one of the first school districts in the state to receive the grant, which will allow the district to implement the program.

“It’s a great opportunity to get on the ground floor and jump in and make it happen,” said Maragret McCarthy, Unite! Washougal’s drug-free communities coordinator. “This evidence-based program will help us grow leaders in our schools and leaders in our community to support youth. Sources of Strength is great because it has the power of youth, but also the support from school district (employees) and community members. It’s really about building resiliency skills (and helping people to realize that they are) already capable of so much, and that they just need to recognize that, and build those areas in themselves and in others.”

The Sources of Strength program is based on eight pillars, including: mental health, family support, positive friends, mentors, healthy activities, generosity, spirituality and medical access. The program’s emphasis on trained peer leaders also fits with Unite! Washougal’s goals of helping students be more connected to each other and their community, according to Kanzler.

“We wanted to find some type of a mentoring program, something that would really be useful and would also provide opportunity for data-driven success,” she said.

McCarthy and Kanzler held a virtual training session for prospective adult mentors on June 11, and have planned to hold another session in late August or early September. They also are recruiting and training peer leaders from a pool of candidates nominated by Washougal School District employees.

“Ideally, the adult advisors and the peer leaders will meet together regularly (and discuss) whatever campaign they decided to do for the next week or month or however long, and they’ll develop it as a group, and then (the students will) share it out on their social media and ask their peers to engage in the activity,” Kanzler said. “There might also be lunchtime activities, after-school activities and so forth. But the youth will be driving this.”

The Sources of Strength program is not the first time Unite! Washougal has helped Washougal students and families this year.

After the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools in mid-March, Unite! Washougal raised $51,000 through Facebook outreach and a grant from the Community Foundation of Southwest Washington’s COVID-19 response fund to support the school district’s food-delivery program by providing 13,000 meals to adults in need.

“That’s not something we normally do, but we are in the business, I guess you could say, of helping our community, so it really fell in alignment,” Kanzler said. “Even though it’s not going to be a long-term focus of ours, in the interim we were all on board for helping our community in this way. We hadn’t focused on something like this before, but it’s been a great way to see connections in our community.”

Unite! Washougal also supported Jemtegaard Middle School’s “Club 8” after-school activities program, helping to increase student engagement for the program’s “virtual” track and field team, kindness club, arts club, bingo event and “Fiesta Friday” celebration.

“We want to support the community’s needs and collaborate to promote a positive growth mindset,” McCarthy said. “We can get through (tough times), especially when we work together, and maybe even come out stronger on the other side with new skills and strategies.”