Willamette High School Pushes to Support Its Students

School reaches out to its LGBTQ community in the wake of a suicide cluster

An elderly man, wearing a red sweater, shrugs his shoulders. A caption reads, “Guess I’ll die.”

It’s a pretty common meme, always with the same punchline, but the content ranges from dramatic to down-right self-deprecating. It’s the kind of self-deprecating that might make you wonder if the person who made the meme is OK. Are the people who share it OK?

“Me —” one iteration of the meme starts. “No social life, low grades, low self esteem, unrealistic goals.” It ends with, “Guess I’ll die.”

In the wake of a cluster of suicides among teens in Lane County — five in a six-week period last year — Bethel School District’s Willamette High School is offering services aimed at promoting mental health.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. among people ages 10 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Last year in Lane County, nine adolescents — 24 years old or younger — died by suicide, according to Lane County Public Health.

Bethel School District, a district in which almost half the students receive free or reduced lunch, is reaching out to the school’s LGBTQ community. For LGBTQ students, the problem is more acute.

LGBTQ youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate and attempt suicide at almost five times the rate of their straight and cisgender peers, according to the CDC and the Trevor Project, a national organization for crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LGBTQ young people.

Bethany Grace Howe, a transgender woman and doctoral candidate at the University of Oregon School of Communication and Journalism, says that “the stress they feel in a cis-gender normative world” contributes to LGBTQ teens’ higher risk of engaging in suicidal behavior.

Willamette High School has a wide range of student services. Students can access weekly free crisis intervention provided by Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS), one of the many crisis services provided by White Bird Clinic. The mobile health resource clinic provides students with one-on-one counseling and some medical services.

The district has its own health clinic, Bethel Health Center, which provides free and confidential counseling to its students as well as basic medical care. Other services include Willamette’s student-led mental health club, Sources of Strength, multi-stall gender-neutral bathrooms and onsite daycare so teen parents can have better access to education.

Willamette also has supports that benefit the LGBTQ student population more directly, namely the Gender Sexuality Alliance, or GSA.

Kim Naylor teaches English at Willamette and is the advisor for the school’s GSA. It’s her first year advising the club, though it’s been around for several years. This year’s GSA is mostly freshmen, and Naylor says it operates mostly as an affinity group. “The ones who really come every week really just want to be around other people who are not straight and aren’t embarrassed about it and are loud about it,” Naylor says.

The club takes time to talk about what’s going on in the students’ lives, but Naylor says that, because of pop culture, “there is, I think, a certain level of performance of mental health happening with youth right now, a performance of a lack of mental health right now too.”

This façade results from two competing but equally harmful phenomena. The first is that students will act happy because everyone on Instagram looks like they’re living their best lives, and they feel they should too. The other is those memes that use a desire to die as a punchline.

So, when students at Willamette want to talk about mental health issues such as depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts it’s usually with Naylor, and it’s usually one-on-one.

Naylor says the administrative staff at Bethel provides a high level of support for LGBTQ students. Staff is quick to handle name change requests for transgender students who wish to identify differently, she says, and quick to process referrals based on hate speech.

Bethel has “a lot of students and community members who might see being gay or trans as being against their beliefs and might complain to the school about those things,” Naylor says, so Bethel School District works to have supportive staff and services on hand for their LGBTQ students.

School culture isn’t the only thing they’re up against. “There are too many crises, there are too many issues for there to be enough [services],” Naylor says.

Still, in the course of the school year, Naylor says, “I’ve seen more willingness [in GSA] to talk to each other about what’s actually going on.” She adds, “Bethel really tries to be equitable and to provide the supports that students need.”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. The Oregon Youth Hotline is 877-968-8491, or text teen2teen to 839863. CAHOOTS is dispatched in Eugene through the police-fire-ambulance communications center, 541-682-5111. More at breakingthesilenceor.com.

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