Kenny McKinley death could lead to teen suicide attempts, says head of DPS prevention program

Broncos receiver Kenny McKinley was laid to rest yesterday (fortunately with no reported protests from members of Westboro Baptist Church) on the same day that Denver Public Schools publicly introduced its Signs of Suicide curriculum. The later event had been planned long before McKinley took his life, yet his death raises fears about a teen-suicide uptick according to the DPS rep heading the program.

"With all the publicity, it could actually trigger some adolescents to attempt," says Ellen Kelty, team leader for DPS's department of social work and psychological services, as well as a nationally accredited school suicide-prevention specialist. "Suicide is very contagious with teenagers. That's a concern with me."

DPS staffers' decision to add the Signs of Suicide curriculum wasn't prompted by what Kelty refers to as a "rash or cluster" of attempts or deaths by students in the system. Rather, it's part and parcel of DPS Health Agenda 2015, a collection of health priorities for the district that's still in draft stage, though Kelty expects it to be finalized within the next month or so.

"It's the health plan for the next five years," she notes, adding that Signs of Suicide, a program developed by an organization called Screening for Mental Health, was in the midst of being implemented prior to yesterday's media intro at George Washington High School -- a date chosen to correspond with September's designation as suicide-prevention month.

She reveals that "it's already in sixteen or seventeen schools," including Hamilton Middle School and Denver School of the Arts, among others, "and within five years, we want to expand it to all sixth- and ninth-grade students."

Kelty describes SOS, which boasts that it's been shown to reduce self-reported suicide attempt rates by 40 percent, as a "three-session class, 45 minutes apiece, that will usually be taught by a psychologist, a social worker, a nurse or someone with a mental-health background. It includes a video that teaches kids what to do if a friend is showing signs of depression and suicide."

The middle school and high school programs aren't identical. For instance, Kelty says, the former includes "a Jeopardy-type game that helps kids look for the signs of suicide" in conjunction with the acronym ACT, which stands for Acknowledge, be Caring and Tell an adult.

Regarding yesterday's George Washington event, Kelty says she felt the students were very receptive. They did bring up the McKinley suicide -- "There were some questions about that" -- but "we talked more about the warning signs of suicide and breaking that code of silence. Teenagers often know a friend is suicidal but they don't tell an adult because they don't want to narc on a friend. We talked about how they can actually prevent suicides if they talk to an adult about it."

Those kinds of conversations need to go both ways, she stresses. "Parents really need to talk to their kids about suicide," she says. "They may know their child has made suicidal statements, but they may not tell the school because they might not think of it as a serious threat. But they need to take any changes in behavior very seriously."

Whether there's been a high-profile suicide in the news or not.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts