BENNINGTON -- A plethora of services are available for "at risk" middle and high school students in Bennington, according to Kristyn Harrington, licensed clinical social worker and Mount Anthony Union High School vice principal.
Harrington spoke before the Bennington Select Board Monday night to present results from the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey and articulated the various support services available to local students.
The YRB Survey is an anonymous survey developed by the Centers for Disease Control that measures the prevalence of risky behaviors that contribute to the leasing cause of death among youth: Disease and injury.
The survey is administered every two years to students, usually in February, Harrington said, and parents have the option to opt their child out of the survey if they wish.
In 2011, 804 MAUHS students and 542 MAUMS students participated in the survey, according to Harrington.
During the presentation to the Bennington Select Board, Harrington focused on survey results in the areas of personal safety and substance abuse.
In the area of personal safety, the survey revealed that 20 percent of MAUMS students, or 108 students, had seriously thought about killing themselves, while 12 percent, or 65 students, said that they had, at one time, made a suicide plan.
Finally, 7 percent of middle school students surveyed, or 38 students, said they had once attempted to commit suicide.
The survey also revealed that 15 percent of MAUHS students, or 121 students, had purposely cut or burned themselves in the year leading up to the survey.
To boot, 24 percent, or 193 high school students said they felt sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row in the year leading up to the survey, while 5 percent or 40 of those students said they had actually attempted suicide in the past year. Of those 40 students, 22 were female and 17 were male.
"These numbers show that people of all ages can get into a very dark and hopeless place," Harrington said. "In that place, problem solving gets compromised and it's hard to recognize other options. For some people, they see the only solution to their problems to be ending their life."
Harrington said that there are plenty of services and individuals at the disposal of students in both the middle and high school that aim to combat these sentiments.
At MAUMS, student services include a student assistance counselor, school-based counseling with community therapists, and community partnerships with United Counseling Services, Sunrise Family Resource Center, and the Department for Children and Families, just to name a few.
Student services at the high school are equally as abundant, and include a school-based health clinic, a student assistance counselor, four school-based clinicians, one of which is a certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor, a school social worker, a contracted psychologist, and community partnerships similar to those at the middle school.
On the token of substance abuse, the YRB survey revealed that 17 percent of MAUHS students, or 137 students had used a prescription pain reliever or stimulant not prescribed to them.
Twenty-nine percent, or 233 of those same students said they had used marijuana in the month leading up to the survey, while 4 percent, or 22 middle school students said they had smoked cigarettes in the month leading up to the survey.
Harrington said that high school teachers are also trained to identify the signs of substance abuse in students, much like they are trained to identify the signs of suicide and depression.
"The warning signs are not dissimilar," she said. "Really what we're telling teachers is that if something seems different with a student, to bring that to the attention of somebody who is trained to help."
Harrington encourages all members of the Bennington community to pay attention to their "gut."
"If something doesn't feel right, trust that feeling, ask questions, and reach out. Help is available."
According to Harrington, student assistance counselors provided counseling support services to 157 students at MAUMS during the 2012-2013 school year, while school-based clinicians and social workers served a total of 204 high school students during the same time span.
The number of students seeking support was, "notable," Harrington said, explaining that there were probably a number of contributing factors involved, including an increased vigilance among faculty and a growing "visibility" or awareness of available services in recent years.
"I speak to incoming freshman and their parents about the services we offer at orientation," she said. "We encourage the entering class to speak with us if they are having a hard time. The sooner we explore situations that are difficult, often, the easier they are to fix."
In addition to trained mental health professionals, Harrington said in an interview Tuesday that high school teachers are also trained to identify the warning signs of suicide and the like during a workshop which she runs at the beginning of each school year.
"Teachers are in a unique position in that they spend hours every day with these kids. They know what's normal, what's typical," Harrington said. "The first and foremost thing we say to teachers is that anytime a student is acting in a way that's unusual for them, to take note of that. We tell them is that it's not their responsibility to figure out what the problem is, it's their responsibility to identify that something is going on and work to connect that student with someone who can help identify the problem and develop a plan to address it."
Harrington said that a community effort is needed both in and out of school to encourage students to communicate on a regular basis how they are feeling.
"We have to make it okay for these kids to talk about their thoughts and feelings. We have to make it okay that they identify when they need help and are struggling," she said. "Some people have the misperception that if we ask a young person about how they're feeling or if they're thinking about suicide or wanting to die, that were planting an idea in their head. That's not true. It's a tragic idea that we have to live with and we have to make it okay to talk about."
Contact Elizabeth A. Conkey at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @bethconkey.