Fighting youth suicide by talking about it

Jill Jeter has talked with far too many suicidal students.

As Medford School District's Crisis Prevention Specialist, her role is complex. On a given day, she may explore what therapy options are covered by a student's insurance. In the less-common times of tragedy or crisis, she steers counseling and recovery efforts.

Many days, though, she plays a supportive role for counselors meeting with students struggling with suicidal thoughts — meetings that she said happen daily in Medford schools.

Jackson County's youth suicide rate, according to an Oregon Health Authority report, was one of the highest in Oregon. The six youth suicides in Jackson County in 2014 matched the numbers in Marion and Deschutes counties. There were 90 youth suicides among 10- to 24-year-olds that year in Oregon.

Statewide, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among those aged 15 to 34, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Yet Jeter, who was the youth suicide prevention coordinator for Jackson County before she joined the school district, says she sees a need for improvement in how the community handles students' suicidal thoughts: knowing how to talk about them.

"We want to pretend it's not a problem that exists," she said. "People always want to believe the best about people they love. But most people will have thoughts of suicide during their lifetime."

MSD wants to help combat this silence on suicide by using a forum it created to equip parents for uncomfortable or unfamiliar conversations. Through its monthly "Parent Academy" launched this year, the district is tackling topics ranging from discussing sexuality to the impacts of social media and technology. Next week, Jeter will lead a discussion on preventing suicide.

School district spokeswoman Natalie Hurd said those running the program expect a good turnout. 

"It sounds like something the community knows is necessary to discuss," she said.

Jeter said parents will leave with a better understanding of how to tackle one of the most necessary and yet difficult conversations with their kids.

"The more comfortable parents are talking about suicide and depression, the more comfortable their kids will be talking about their depression and feelings," she said.

The vast majority of her cases dealing with students' suicidal thoughts result in a meeting with her, the child and the parents in a room, just talking things out that may not have been discussed before.

"Kids talk to kids more than they want to talk to adults," she said. "If we can get parents talking to kids, we might be preventing attempts they might not have wanted to talk about."

The school district has recognized the tendency for students to confide in each other, however, and decided to make sure they are also equipped to respond to what they might hear. Jeter trains students about warning signs of suicidal or self-harming behavior and what to do if they encounter them.

"I think the long-term goal is to de-stigmatize conversation around suicide and depression," Jeter said. "We’re trying to normalize a topic that kids want to talk about but they don’t know how."

The Parent Academy on suicide prevention will be held at the Medford School District Auditorium, 815 S. Oakdale Ave., from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 16.  Families are encouraged to attend together.

The monthly schedule for the Parent Academy can be viewed on the district's website at Hurd said that all the sessions are being recorded and will be available for viewing online for those who are not able to attend.

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at 541-776-4497 or Follow her on Twitter at

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