Highlighting the Idaho Lives Project

Last month, Kim Kane and Judy Gabert, two of our partners with the Idaho Lives Project were facilitating a community meeting in Caldwell, Idaho. With more than 50 community leaders in the room, a father, a local finance manager, stood up to introduce himself but was quickly flooded with emotion, unable to speak. He paused, composed himself, and through tears declared, “That program at Caldwell High just saved my son’s life.”     

A peer leader from Sources of Strength at Caldwell connected this man’s son to a trusted adult. Willing to break the silence, they helped their friend get the support he needed, and a life was saved. Friends help friends get help.

The Idaho Lives Project (ILP) is engaged in a statewide effort to implement Sources of Strength in middle schools and high schools across Idaho. ILP is reporting story after story of peer leaders and adult advisors partnering to spread a message of hope, health and strength in their communities.

While visiting Eagle Academy this past fall, Kim Kane heard a similar story from a school counselor. One of the peer leaders in the school had been experiencing suicidal ideation, and their peer leader team responded quickly by connecting the student to a trusted adult. The school counselor was invited into the situation and intervened, offering the necessary support and mental health services to the struggling student.  

After hosting a mini Sources of Strength training at a Juvenile Justice center in Idaho, the director of the center emailed the Idaho Lives Project reporting that the training and the program had helped to save the life of a suicidal juvenile, who was now receiving help and support. They also shared the inspiring story of one young man who stood up at the end of the training and demanded to know why no one had told him that he had strengths. What’s more, this young man expressed hope and confidence that he could now make it outside, knowing he has other strengths to draw on even without family support.

The Idaho Lives Project has also shared stories of the program’s impact in postvention situations, where after the (non-suicide) death of a student at Eagle Academy last spring (2015), the peer leader team mobilized into action. The counselor at the school reported that her peer leaders, who had already shared the wheel within classrooms, went around  reminding staff and students to tap into and use their strengths when struggling with the loss of this friend and fellow classmate. Many teachers reported being impacted by the efforts of these peer leaders (having known the deceased for four years), and the counselor said that the staff and students communicated they were helped by the strength-based messaging of the school’s Sources of Strength team.  

These, and many other stories have added meaning and significance to the work of the Idaho Lives Project and their team. The hours of planning, tirelessly chasing down funding, traveling, training, supporting adult advisors, peer leaders, and trainers, collecting data, and writing and rewriting new grant proposals to keep the program going for many years to come has been invaluable to these individual students and to the communities at large.

The Idaho Lives Project, a partnership between the Idaho State Department of Education (ISDE) and the Suicide Prevention Action Network of Idaho (SPAN Idaho), has been doing great work over the past few years to roll out Sources of Strength on a statewide level. In the third year of implementation, having trained and sustained four cohorts of schools, they are now gearing up to train the fifth cohort to receive the Sources of Strength program. To date they have implemented the program in 30 schools (High Schools and Middle Schools), offering training to 177 Adult Advisors and 941 peer leaders, throughout 15 of Idaho’s 44 counties. On top of offering Sources of Strength training to these schools, the Idaho Lives Project has offered gatekeeper training to 1222 staff members, as well as to numerous members of the surrounding communities. All of this is part of a comprehensive statewide initiative to prevent suicide; offering gatekeeper training to Adults, upstream prevention training to youth, young adults, and adult advisors, as well as best practice suicide prevention and mental health aftercare training for clinicians.

Working toward long term sustainability, the Idaho Lives Project hosted a four day Sources of Strength Train the Trainer (T4T) Skills Session event in 2014. During this T4T, 19 local and regional trainers from schools and mental health services across the state were equipped to sustain local schools with ongoing Sources of Strength training. These efforts were funded by the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Suicide Prevention Grant. Coming to the end of this Grant, the Idaho Lives Project is currently tracking down further funding at the state and federal level, hoping to expand their implementation of Sources of Strength alongside other initiatives.

As with any large scale implementation, there have been some successes and some challenges. Some of the most challenging barriers to the success of the program have been due to: 1) high staff turnover resulting in the loss of key adult advisors; 2) school staff and administrators’ attitudes about mental well-being and commitment to the program, resulting in difficulty finding times for peer leaders to meet and plan (not wanting to use class time); 3) more schools in need than the program is able to fund; and 4) finding and training the right advisors who are committed and have the appropriate skill sets and passion for the program. Despite these challenges, the program continues to celebrate the 26 out of their 30 schools that continue to have flourishing Sources of Strength programs.

We offer this story of the Idaho Lives Project as an example of the great work that teams are doing across the country and as a specific example of what it looks like to roll out a coordinated statewide effort to prevent suicide by teaching  students, their schools, and communities how to develop the strength and resilience to overcome difficulty and live strong and meaningful lives.