Mental Health Clinicians Work to Keep Students Safe in Kodiak Schools

Kodiak High School. (Photo by Kayla Desroches / KMXT)

Mitch Borden/KMXT

It’s been at least nine years since a student in the Kodiak Island Borough School District has taken his or her own life. That’s in part due to the work that many organizations in Kodiak work to keep children safe. The Kodiak Island Borough School District and the Providence Kodiak Island Counseling Center have partnered for years to provide mental health services to the region’s schools.

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It’s been a long time since the Kodiak Island Borough School District has lost a student to suicide. For at least nine years, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services says, not a single person between the ages of 5 and 19 has taken his or her life in the Kodiak Island Borough. It also says from 2012 to 2016, the Kodiak region had one of the lowest rates of suicide in the state.

Dr. Larry LeDoux is the district’s superintendent. He says he’s lost students to suicide in the past, so he’s grateful for this reprieve.

“Sometimes I don’t know  why we haven’t had any, I’m just thankful we haven’t had any.”

The school district includes around a dozen schools across the Kodiak archipelago. The recent lull can’t be attributed to any one thing, LeDoux says.

“If I were to point a finger at why do we have fewer suicides it’s because we have a community working together to keep kids safe. And so we can do our best as a school system as a community just to make sure that people have services readily available and that’s what we’re doing.”

That community,  LeDoux says, includes mental health professionals.  The district partners with the Providence Kodiak Island Counselling Center, also known as PKICC, to bring mental health clinicians into schools.

“Our clinicians have their fingers on the pulses on what’s going on in the school.”

Mary Guillas-Hawver is the director of PKICC. She thinks the lack of suicides over the last 9 years has a lot to do with the counseling center’s relationship with the district. The counseling center has worked with the school district to keep students safe for over 20 years.

Four clinicians are embedded in Kodiak’s public schools. Two serve the city’s elementary schools and two serve its middle and high school. As for rural schools, they, also get regular visits from clinicians, who are constantly on the lookout for signs of distress in students. Among the red flags: thoughts of suicide.

“They are trained to watch for any behavior or anything that might indicate that child may be in need of additional help.”

The clinicians work with students on issues ranging from learning disabilities, addiction, and trauma. Guillas-Hawver thinks their interventions have been key to preventing tragedies in Kodiak communities. That’s especially important in Alaska, which had the second highest suicide rate in the United States in 2015 according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Guillas-Hawver: “Alaska is a vast, vast, geographical place, but when it comes to population we’re really are very small. So, one person lost affects the community very very badly.”

Rogers: “It’s catching kids that are falling through the cracks. That might get overlooked and it’s giving them a place where they feel like they belong.”

Jolene Rogers worked as a clinician in Kodiak Schools for two years. She now works with older teens and adults. Rogers says she loved working with students.

As a clinician, she got to see kids grow and feel more confident. She says it was also good to work with school counselors and teachers to figure out what it would take to make a student feel supported.

“Do they need a snack at this part of the day? Do they just need a high five from a certain adult figure in the school? Do they need a positive male figure in their life? Who can we use to fill that need? And I think at the end of the day our goal is to have our kids learn and thrive in their classrooms.”

PKICC clinicians don’t stop treating students when the school year is over. They stay in contact with them over summer breaks as well. It’s this kind of attention that makes the program so effective.

The district plans to continue improving and revising its partnership with the Providence Kodiak Island Counseling Center to keep students safe — and successful.

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If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts please call the Alaska Careline at 1-877-266-4357. That’s 1-877-266-4357. You can call 24 hrs a day, seven days a week. You’ll be connected with someone who you talk to about what you’re going through. It’s free and confidential. They can help, really. Call the Alaska Careline at 1-877-266-4357.

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