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.

 

Reflections on Sources of Strength & NREPP

Greetings from Sources of Strength. In the past few weeks we have been accepted to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP). This is the highest tier a prevention program can achieve. It’s a great honor for our organization and for all the peer leader teams around the US and Canada that are impacting their schools and communities.

I found this to be an emotional moment for me as I immediately thought back to standing gravesite by many teens in the 1990’s and reflected on the first steps of creating the strength-based peer efforts in the late 90’s when most voices in the country were saying not to use peer leaders in suicide prevention. Our early work in rural and tribal communities led to the holistic model represented in the Sources of Strength wheel today.

I also thought back to a cold November day in 2005 when Peter Wyman from the University of Rochester, Hendricks Brown from the University of South Florida, and David Litts from SPRC flew into Bismarck to see what this Sources of Strength deal was all about. Peter and Hendricks had just finished one of the nation’s largest research trials on gatekeeper training and were conducting a national search of peer led efforts in their attempts to address some of the gaps in prevention their research had found. That trip was the start of a rich and dynamic community-research partnership that is in full swing to this day. I feel blessed, amazed, weary, and refreshed as I think through the many years leading up to the NREPP posting.

“Upstream” prevention is a trendy buzzword today, but my sincere hope is to contribute to how suicide prevention is conceptualized in some significant ways. Our goal is to empower local leaders, both young people and adults so they can truly create positive change. With many schools already having been rigorously evaluated and a large number in our present five-year National Peer Leadership Study we can possibly be one of the first efforts to statistically answer the question of whether we are truly reducing suicide fatalities and injuries.

This is not easy work. I was recently reading on how Community-Based Participatory Research is often spoken of, but how few programs are able to do this in reality, especially in large scale randomized trials. Putting together a large randomized trial while listening, respecting, and learning from our community partners is not a task for the faint of heart. It is the high wire act of prevention – balancing the rigors of research with the challenges of maintaining true partnerships in schools and communities. Being able to make strategic change to Sources of Strength from two equally important directions – research outcomes and from the community/school input and experience.

Not easy work at all and it takes some great researchers like Peter Wyman and Hendricks Brown, combined with key stakeholders with vision for states, regions, and tribes. Mix in some outstanding adults that will mentor and support peer leaders not just for a few months, but for a few years. Add groups of local peer leaders with energy, vision, diversity, passion, and creativity. Stir, support, train, support some more and something pretty special comes out.

What it means is that the NREPP posting is a great step in this process. We get to pause and raise our glasses to each other and say well done. So from across the country the Sources of Strength staff is raising our glasses to all of you and saying well done.

My vision of Sources of Strength is that after this powerful moment, we move back to work and continue to evaluate, research, and listen and continue to make an impact out in the real world. Implementing programs in schools, communities, and villages that are seriously challenged with limited resources, high fatality numbers, and day to day crisis threatening the ability to sustain prevention efforts. My vision is that Sources of Strength is never a finished product, but that we keep adapting, learning, marketing, and changing. While we have products, curriculum, manuals, and resources there is no “finished product” in Sources of Strength. We keep making changes in our efforts based upon ongoing and expanding research and on the stories and experiences from our grassroots partners.

So thank you. Thank you. Much peace and do know that your efforts are greatly appreciated. Let’s keep lighting up our corners of the world and keep walking forward with a humble, inquisitive, engaged, playful spirit of awe that we get to go to work each day and actually save some young lives. Pretty amazing.

-Mark