SAU 16 puts focus on mental health

EXETER SAU 16 Superintendent Dr. David Ryan said the biggest concern he goes to bed thinking about is the one student with depression missed by school faculty before committing an act of self-harm.

We know a lot of kids are hurting on the inside and it worries me constantly we might miss the opportunity to intervene and get a student help, Ryan said. Its something I dont think we can ever do enough of.

Ryan said the district has made the mental health of students a top priority in recent years. He said SAU 16 is working with a number of community partners such as Connors Climb Foundation, implementing the SOS (Signs of Suicide) program in the Cooperative Middle School. They have also brought in specific lesson plan activities from the National Alliance on Mental Illness into classrooms.

Theres a long history of students relying on trusted adults in our schools when they need help, Ryan said. Ive heard anecdotally there is a consistent stream of students going in to speak with counselors.

However, following the suicide of a seventh-grade CMS student Dec. 20 of last year, Ryan said suicide prevention programming has been halted at the middle school as students recover from the loss of a peer.

At CMS, we are still very much in the postvention phase and we were advised to cease and desist all programming related to suicide prevention, Ryan said.

This week, former New Hampshire Supreme Court Justice John Broderick came to speak at Exeter High School. He spoke to parents and community members Tuesday night and EHS students on Wednesday and Thursday.

Broderick, working for Dartmouth-Hitchcock hospital, has spent the last three years speaking at more than 300 schools in New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts to students about ending the stigma around mental illness and depression. Broderick shares his own familys story about confronting mental illness.

Brodricks son, John Christian Broderick, was diagnosed with severe anxiety and depression while in the New Hampshire state prison after he assaulted his father in 2002, receiving a 7- to- 15-year sentence. Broderick was 54 at the time and said he and his wife failed their son and mistook his mental health issues for alcoholism. While in prison he began seeing a therapist and taking medication for his depression and anxiety.

I thought mental illness meant hopeless, its far from hopeless. I didnt know that then but I know it now, Broderick said on Tuesday. (When he was paroled from prison) driving home my son asked me, Dad, have you always felt like this, good? And I said yes I probably had, and I knew I had failed him.

State Sen. Jon Morgan, D-Brentwood, introduced Broderick Tuesday and shared his familys own story confronting depression, telling the audience he had two members of his extended family commit suicide. He said his late father, former SAU 16 superintendent Michael Morgan, was deeply affected every time he received word a student in one of the schools took their own life.

Most days, he would come home at 9, 9:30, 10 at night and he would always have this persistent smile on his face, Morgan said. Whenever Dad learned he had lost a student to suicide in this district, it shook him to the absolute core; you could see it in his face and hear it in his voice. It was a palpable sight of frustration, helplessness and was something he just couldnt conquer. It was if he lost a piece of himself.

EHS Principal Michael Monahan said on the heels on Broderick speaking to the school community he hoped students would continue to seek out mental health services when they feel depressed.

Mental illness is just that, an illness and its nothing to be ashamed of and it can be treated. For students who have these feelings, they need to find an adult they trust and they have to tell them about how they feel, Monahan said. The kids are more attuned to some of the services we have in place around the school. We have a system where if you see something, hear something, then to say something and I think the kids take that to heart.

Leigh Sloss, of Exeter, attended Brodericks discussion Tuesday night and said his story needs to keep being told so everyone can understand how prevalent mental illness is in society.

The more we hear (Brodericks) story, we become more vulnerable and gain the courage to tell our own stories, said Sloss, who has one child at EHS and one at CMS. We just have to keep sharing and break down these walls.

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