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Orchard Park schools target parents for mental health education

Schools in New York are now mandated to teach about mental health, and Orchard Park is taking it a step further by offering parents a series on mental, social and emotional health.

"It really started over the last year to 18 months where we've seen concerning behavior in our student body," said Lisa Krueger, assistant superintendent for curriculum and pupil services for the Orchard Park Central Schools.

The district has experienced student suicide and dealt with grieving students and faculty during that time. It also is seeing more students seeking help to cope with pressures.

"Often it's our top performing students who are now sitting in the office of our student counselors. A lot of our kids are stressed, anxious, and have the weight of the world on their shoulders," she said.

The family is a key component for student mental health, and the district wants to give parents as much information as possible and strengthen the partnership with families. Three sessions are planned, one on suicide, one on anxiety and the third on the effects of screen time on youth.

"More than Sad: Suicide Prevention for Parents" is the first session. It will take place from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday in the high school auditorium and will be repeated at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 31 in the middle school auditorium.

Missy Stolfi, director of the Western New York chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, will discuss how to recognize the signs of depression and other mental health problems, initiate a conversation with children and get them appropriate help.

"It’s a scary thing to think about with your kid. The idea was we can empower parents, help break down the fears," Stolfi said.

One of the first things Stolfi will discuss is language that perpetuates stigma about suicide. She will caution parents to say died by suicide, ended his or her life, or killed himself or herself rather than say that someone "committed" suicide, which can stigmatize the victim by making it seem like the person chose to do a bad thing. She also will suggest parents not talk about suicide attempts as failed or successful, which can imply the need to try harder on a subsequent attempt.

Youth suicide rates are increasing, and it is the second leading cause of death in young people, she said.

But it's not bad to talk about suicide, she said.

"It's a myth that if we talk about suicide it gives people the idea," Stolfi said. "A lot of people are struggling, and it doesn't matter what your background is."

She also will advise parents to trust their "gut," particularly if there is a change in behavior.

"It's not easy to be a teenager, it never has been," Stolfi said.

Krueger said many teens sleep with their cellphones, and get notifications and texts throughout the night, interrupting sleep. They may have 400 friends on social media, but focus on events they were excluded from.

"Many of our youth have never felt more isolated or depressed or lonely," she said.

In February, the district will hold a session on anxiety, screening the documentary, "Angst," which includes interviews with teens, parents and experts. And in March, another documentary, "Screenagers," about the effects of screen time on youth, including sleep deprivation, will be shown. A panel discussion will follow.

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