Tori Mueller speaks with St. James Middle/High School students about teen suicide and self-harm

Sean Ellertson
St. James Plaindealer

Throughout the school day on Monday, Tori Mueller, Treatment Director at Sioux Trails Mental Health Center, spoke with St. James Middle/Senior High School students on mental health, depression, anxiety, self-harm, and teen suicide.

Mueller was a guest on one of the Teen Talk podcast episodes conducted by St. James students. Mueller's familiarity with St. James her ability to connect with students was a large part of the reason why St. James Middle/High School Principal Karla Beck chose her to lead the presentations.

"During COVID-19 and during the pandemic, the problem magnified because kids have been living in their basements and their bedrooms and living through tragedy after tragedy," said Beck.  "I have taken way too many calls from parents this school year and hearing them say 'my child is in a 72-hour hold,'" said Beck. "Thank God we have not lost anyone. This is a real subject, and we cannot brush [it] under the table. We cannot pretend it's not here. It's very much an unfortunate reality.

"I can no longer sit by and hope it doesn't happen. We have a crisis here."

"As a principal, there's a time when you see a significant need and as the leader of the building, you have to address it before you have to address it in a reactive way."

In the presentations, Mueller first started with asking students a variety of questions about students' loved ones and those who they knew who had either talked about suicide, attempted suicide, or those who had committed suicide.

In the 11th grade presentation at 2:15, all students remained standing when asked if they knew of someone who had expressed suicidal thoughts.

"And like almost every other class before you, a lot of you are still standing," said Mueller to the group. 

"We know it's real within our lives."

A handful of students remained standing following being asked if they had known anyone who had committed suicide.

"Generally speaking nearly every student at that school knew someone who had suicidal thoughts," said Mueller. "Most of them knew someone who had talked about it. The number of students who knew someone who had attempted or completed was also alarmingly high. Overall I would say 50-75% of all students in each grade knew someone who had attempted or completed."

Mueller then showed a Tedx Talk Youth from Sadie Penn, who told her story about suicide, and how she helped others seek help.

Throughout the presentations, Mueller shared data about students and self-harm and suicide data.

Minnesota ranks 11th in the United States in teen suicide and is above the national average, and over 14,000 students had seriously thought about or attempted suicide in 2016. Suicide attempts among teens across the country have also risen by 35% from 1999-2019.

Mueller discussed potential warning signs and causes of harmful thoughts, and COVID-19's impact on suicide rates.

"Some people have spent the majority of the last year in their bedroom," said Mueller. "People are having more mental health symptoms, likely, because of the stress and isolation."

Some of the warning signs were subtle talks of being constantly tired or feeling hopeless, being withdrawn, or as direct as claiming self-harm or suicidal thoughts. Increased use of drugs or alcohol, as well as risky behavior, and were also cited as being warning signs.

Mueller also stated that some contemplating suicide will present a letter to be opened at a later date. Mueller urged students to not wait and to open it immediately.

"Do not listen to them. Open it. Open it every time. An angry friend, a pissed-off friend even, is much better than a dead friend."

When talking about how to help, Mueller discussed the BeThe1To campaign through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

The campaign presents five steps: ask, be there, keep them safe, help them connect, and follow-up.

Throughout the week, St. James Middle/High School students engaged in conversations all week in their advisory classes to expand upon the #BeThe1To curriculum learned on Monday.

"I want our kids and staff to understand that mental health isn't taboo," said Beck. "If you are in a bad place with your mental, social, and emotional being, that we should be able to help address those things and that they shouldn't be seen as unapproachable."

Mueller has been with Sioux Trails for 11 years. Typically, her presentations are directed more towards school staff.

"I have given many presentations since I started in management, however, most of the suicide presentations have been geared toward the school staff," said Mueller. "This was my first suicide presentation for students specifically. Students tend to be more engaged around other topics they are more comfortable with such as bullying, however, something as serious as suicide definitely hit some students harder than others. Some of the grades were much more able to engage while some became quiet very quickly."