The lives of 1,847 students, faculty and staff at Shawnee Mission West High School are literally linked together to prevent suicide.
The chain of life — comprised of the names of each member of the Shawnee Mission West family — is just one of many recognitions made in the Shawnee Mission School District during last week’s National Suicide Prevention Week observations.
The Shawnee Mission School District has been tragically familiar with suicide, having lost two SM Northwest students and an Indian Hills Middle School student last school year. Students, faculty and staff across the district are finding ways to help each other cope with these losses, and also to prevent tragedy from happening again.
Lisa O’Hara, a social worker at SM West who helped coordinate the chain of life, said faculty, staff, students and parents all want to raise awareness of suicide prevention and provide resources.
“We don’t want to lose another student or family member to suicide because it can be prevented,” O’Hara said, adding that mental health issues such as depression and anxiety are common and often left untreated among students. “This is real, something that’s actually increasing in numbers, that more kids have depression, anxiety and mood disorders.”
Students are involved in the effort as well. O’Hara leads a student group called COPE (Connecting Others to Positive Energy). And Emma Mathieson, a junior at Shawnee Mission West, wrote a song called “Don’t Go Away,” released it on Spotify a few weeks ago and performed it at the Sept. 14 rally.
“I just wanted to make a song that would both inspire and help people through losing someone to suicide and also talk to someone if they are feeling (suicidal),” Mathieson said.
Mathieson wrote the song after she watched her sister-in-law go through the pain of losing a loved one to suicide.
“I’d had the chorus written, and after watching her go through that time in her life, it just kind of clicked what I wanted to do with it, how I wanted to make it (about) someone losing someone to suicide and what they would say to them if they got a chance to talk to them again, and just tell that story from that perspective,” Mathieson said. “I feel like that’s the perspective that isn’t told as much, from the family’s side.”
O’Hara said Mathieson’s song is helpful for students to hear, whether they’ve had suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide.
“I think it’s helping them see that things do get better,” O’Hara said. “People don’t want you to go away; they want you to stay, and there’s all these reasons to stay. Yes, we know it’s hard. All you have to do is reach out for help.”
“Don’t Go Away” is available for purchase on music streaming services. Mathieson said she will forward all proceeds to the Tom Karlin Foundation.
The school board at its Sept. 12 meeting also officially recognized September as National Suicide Prevention Month.
“This is, obviously, an important public health issue,” said Mike Fulton, superintendent of the Shawnee Mission School District. “Mental health and suicide, certainly, are issues that often go silent in the public voice.”
Fulton noted that Shawnee Mission, other school districts and cities in Johnson County are “joining forces to begin the process of having public dialogue” about mental health and suicide prevention.
“Our goal is to support children and adults in ways that will help make Johnson County a healthier place for everybody to live and grow,” Fulton said.
Board member Laura Guy said the proclamation is “just one step” and there is more work to be done.
“We are all aware that proclamations don’t change anything,” Guy said. “But it is a way to raise awareness and let people know that we are very aware this is a very serious issue, for not just the students in our schools, but for the teachers and for the parents as well.”