SHERIDAN — Shortly before the 2018-19 school year began, Sheridan County School District 2 counselors took part in suicide awareness and prevention training. The main tenet of the training was the QPR method, which stands for Question, Persuade, Refer.

QPR training began more than two decades ago but has only been implemented across Wyoming since the Jason Flatt Act was installed in 2014. The law requires teachers to go through at least eight hours of suicide awareness and prevention training every four years.

Sheridan Junior High School counselor Rebecca Attebury organized the QPR training for the SCSD2 counselors, in coordination with the national QPR Institute and local suicide prevention coalition. It was a day filled with presentations and conversations, including discussion about the importance of the topic and how counselors should interact with different groups when they present the information.

The fairly new QPR requirement is one of many steps school counselors take to support students dealing with stresses large and small. Attebury said QPR training is as important as CPR and should go along with it.

“Everybody knows CPR and kind of knows how to first respond there,” Attebury said. “We also need a first responder training for suicide, and so it should be hand-in-hand.”

Attebury and her fellow SJHS counselors work with students who have suicidal ideations every year. However, aiding students in severe circumstances is only one aspect of their job. The counselors view their responsibilities as helping everyone succeed and becoming a healthier, safer person.

“We’re here for everybody,” Attebury said. “We’re here to build relationships and to make sure that kids feel safe.”

The counselors make it a point to be visible in school. That includes welcoming students in the morning and saying hello when they walk through the hallways. Attebury said it helps bridge the gap between adults and students, since people are more likely to turn to someone with whom they feel comfortable.

“Relationships are change agents,” Attebury said. “We’re the first people they see in the morning, we go into classes, we see them at lunchtime.”

SJHS counselors also occasionally travel to elementary schools to introduce themselves to students they will work with in the future.

SJHS counselor Kelli Anderson was a special education paraprofessional at SJHS before becoming a counselor three years ago. She said the different maturity stages for students ages 11 to 14 make her job unique.

“Junior high is such a tough developmental age,” Anderson said. “Your hormones are starting to rage and you’re trying to figure out who you are and who your friends are and what you want to be and do. There are just so many questions that happen at this age.”

SJHS counselor Raili Emery has been a counselor for 30 years. She enjoys working with middle-schoolers because of their willingness to change.

“They’re enthusiastic, they’re passionate, they’re not so set in their ways that you can’t have some sway with how to make better choices and decisions that can affect [their] life,” Emery said.

Emery also occasionally works with local athletes on sports psychology, which can make them more likely to talk with a counselor.

“Kids can see and hear some benefits that apply to something they’re really interested in, like becoming a better athlete, and how some of these counseling techniques can help you do that,” Emery said. “It just kind of opens the door a little bit, lowers the barrier a little bit.”

The counselors reiterated that suicide awareness and prevention is a community effort. In addition to counselors, teachers and parents noticing something, students sometimes inform counselors their friends are in need.

“Kids are more likely to tell other kids than they are an adult, especially at this age,” Attebury said. “That’s why this is so important to talk to kids about, because they’re usually the front line of defense before an adult.”

If a situation needs additional attention, the counselors often refer students to an expert.

“If we’re talking about, ‘Hey, this kid has some significant issues that need to be addressed,’ we’re going to advocate like crazy to make sure that that kid is seeing an outside counselor,” Attebury said.

The SJHS counselors said mental health carries less of a stigma now but there is still a long way to go toward addressing it properly. The Equality State is no exception. Suicide rates in Wyoming increased 39 percent from 1999 to 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“In Wyoming, we check all the boxes for high-risk,” Attebury said.

Those factors include the state’s “cowboy up” attitude, isolation, elevation and access to firearms.

Wyoming’s history of independence and self-reliance often lead to positive results, but they can have negative side effects as well.

“That’s live and well,” Emery said, noting the incorrect perceptions some citizens have. “‘We don’t really need outside resources. We don’t need that kind of help.’ Mental illness is (seen as) a weakness as opposed to an illness.”

In a wide-open state like Wyoming, many residents have limited access to mental health professionals, along with less personal interaction.

“We are created to be social beings,” Attebury said. “When you’re in isolation and you’re 400 miles away from your next relative or you don’t have a close-knit group of people, the health of our mental state and our social connectedness deteriorates.”

Overall, the counselors said QPR provides hope and is a fairly straightforward process.

“It’s a training of offering hope and empowering people to be able to experience that situation and be a point of hope,” Attebury said.

There is a long way to go, but counselors at SJHS and local schools are taking steps toward a more proactive, preventative approach regarding mental health.