Following the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Dr. Scott Poland visited the school to console members of the grieving community. He did the same after the Feb. 14 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
When tragedy strikes in the form of a school shooting, suicide or natural disaster, Poland — a nationally recognized expert on school crisis, youth violence and suicide intervention — assists crisis teams, school staff, parents and communities in the recovery process.
Poland shared his insights Sept. 19 in a south metro Denver presentation about teen suicide prevention and the challenges of parenting in the digital age.
“I love the fact that he said, `You are the parent and you need to be involved,' ” said Denise Atkinson, a mother of two students in Douglas County School District, who wanted to learn more about the challenges youth face. She's noticed that some students at the middle school level struggle with coping skills.
“A lot of parents," she said, "are afraid to ask questions.”
The special event was a collaboration of the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, the Douglas County School District and the Douglas County Youth Initiative, a group of teens who study county needs among youth.
About 50 parents, teachers and mental health experts from Douglas and Arapahoe counties attended the presentation at the Family Resource Pavilion in east Centennial. Local chapters of national mental health organizations, including National Alliance on Mental Illness and American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, offered resources on site.
DCSD Superintendent Thomas Tucker, the opening speaker, described a phone call he received two days earlier from a mother who was at a hospital because her child had attempted suicide.
“This is serious business when we talk about the mental health needs of our students,” Tucker said.
Poland, a professor of psychology at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, shared facts and statistics on national trends and public health concerns in youth.
A father of four, he also shared personal experiences as a parent and from his childhood.
“Somehow, I'm pretty sure all of us here tonight have been affected by suicide,” Poland said. “I was 25 years old when my father died by suicide.”
Poland touched on a number of topics, from bullying to family dynamics to teen depression. He emphasized the importance of talking about suicide, which is the second leading cause of death in teens in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
He advised parents to monitor and restrict kids' technology use, especially at night in the bedroom. Pulling from his own experience, he encouraged divorced parents to make a pact to never talk badly about one another in front of their children.
"Every milestone, everybody is there, sitting next to each other," said Poland, who made a similar agreement with his ex-wife. "Isn't that what every kid deserves?”
He urged parents to ask questions and have the hard discussions.
“Respond, don't react,” Poland said. “Reach out, don't preach.”
For Daniel McGuire, who has a 14-year-old daughter in Douglas County, the presentation affirmed his beliefs on teens and excessive technology use.
He appreciates the district's effort to offer free events on mental and physical health.
“I figure if they are going to make resources available, I might as well take advantage of it,” McGuire said. “It's a shame there are still open seats.”
At the core of Poland's presentation was compassion. Kids need to have trusted adults in their lives, he said. They need to feel connected, involved and cared for.
“Go home and tell your sons and daughters they are the ones you always wanted and that you love them for who they are today,” Poland said. “Love them for the kid they are today.”
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