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They lost their son to suicide, now these parents help fund school mental health programs

Kansas City Star - 10/20/2021

Oct. 20—Chad would have been 22 now.

Four years ago, Nathan and Sylvia Harrell thought, "there's no way this could ever happen to me. There's no possible way."

Their son, Chad Harrell, was always outgoing, hilariously funny, "kind of under the radar from a risk of suicide," Nathan Harrell said.

After his death, Sylvia and Nathan Harrell started the Keep the Spark Alive Foundation, through which they work to fund and promote suicide prevention programs in area schools.

One of the programs their foundation helps fund is the Sources of Strength program for Blue Valley and Shawnee Mission middle and high schools. Sources of Strength is a mental health and suicide prevention program meant encourage teens to seek help through connections with peers and adult networks.

"Historically, and I think this exactly was the same with our son, parents aren't the first place that students go when they struggle," Nathan Harrell said.

Students spend more waking hours in school than anywhere else, but addressing mental health, can't just happen in school, Nathan Harrell said. It has to be a community push.

When their son died, no one they knew was talking about mental health. It's been encouraging to see that change.

"A social worker can't know 1,000 kids intimately," Sylvia Harrell said. "When the counselors and social workers can't get to every student, then there are other prevention and mental wellness programs in place. In turn, the kids are also trained to recognize issues going on in their friend, and how to reach out to them, to initiate conversation and to engage a trusted adult."

A week ago they received an email from the manager of the social workers in Blue Valley. A student there had been struggling with thoughts of suicide but because of Sources of Strength, a friend the student reached out to knew to seek help.

The social worker did a pre-assessment, found out the student was "incredibly at risk," then worked with the student and her family to get her to The University of Kansas Health System's Marillac Campus, which helps with mental health needs.

"They're addressing the mental health of our children within the school buildings," Sylvia Harrell said. "They're also part of the process that we're putting in place that the kids now know they're there and they're a trusted adult and they can reach out to them and they can get out that they need."

In addition to Sources of Strength, the Harrells help fund Project happiness, a program for third, fourth and fifth graders that teaches coping resiliency skills.

There aren't enough mental health professionals in schools, and that could cost kids' lives, Nathan Harrell said.

Most schools in the Kansas City area don't meet the American School Counselor Association recommendation of one counselor for every 250 students.

Nathan Harrell expects the importance of those mental health resources to increase over the next six to nine months.

He likened it to war: when the hard times are most intense, people can hunker down and stay strong.

"I truly believe we need herd immunity for mental health issues," Nathan Harrell said. "While it is certainly an issue that should and can be addressed in schools, I think the bigger issue is an awareness, and a dialogue that can occur. That frankly is starting to occur, unlike it did when we lost our son four years ago."


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