The word is getting out to the people Sarah Zimmerman wants to reach.
Young people. Vulnerable young people. And their friends.
“I’ll see kids at the Y and they’ll say, ‘Hey, you’re the suicide prevention counselor!’” Zimmerman says. “So they’re remembering.”
It’s important that they remember Zimmerman, who is working her way into a new, essential and potentially lifesaving job with the Rapid City public school district. Her title is prevention specialist. And what she and all those who work with her in the district hope to prevent is students or staff dying from suicide.
It’s a first for the school system, and the 39-year-old Zimmerman is transitioning from her old job in the district’s Indian education program to prevention specialist. She’s had plenty of experience there as a social worker in suicide assessment and intervention at Ellsworth Air Force Base, and with at adolescents at Rapid City Regional’s behavioral health unit.
Now she leads a prevention effort in a district that, like others, has painful experience with suicide. Most recently between July of 2017 and last December, seven students and one teacher died from suicide. The new position Zimmerman holds is both a response to that and a hopeful step into the future.
It won’t be easy. And it might seem like a burdensome job, with so many challenges and so much at stake. But Zimmerman doesn’t see it that way.
“Suicide prevention is really a passion of mine, because I’ve been involved in associated work since 2002, and I went into this field because I wanted to do meaningful work,” she says. “This is such important work. And to me it’s such an honor when I’m sitting face to face with somebody who’s having those thoughts, and I get to make a positive impact on the outcome.”
Zimmerman will lead the existing suicide-prevention network of counselors and social workers, psychologists and other staffers, from administrators and teachers to office workers, meal-service specialists and custodians.
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“I feel strongly that kids don’t necessarily say ‘I’m going to open up to a counselor or social worker,’” Zimmerman says. “There might be somebody working in the cafeteria or the office that kids feel comfortable opening up to.”
Zimmerman wants to make sure those people, too, are as prepared as possible to listen and respond appropriately. So there will be more training, more coordination, more outreach and more direct work with students.
And all of it will be aimed at encouraging those at risk, or their friends or staffers, to speak up. Some of it has begun. Much more will follow.
Eventually, there will be a suicide-prevention curriculum in the classrooms from fifth through 12th grades. A pilot at North Middle School already offers “lessons” through five-minute videos on the right-and-wrong ways to intervene with someone at risk, followed by class discussions.
“The message we want kids to know is ACT — acknowledge if you’re concerned about a friend, show them you care, then tell a trusted adult,” Zimmerman says. “We spend time identifying those trusted adults and breaking that stigma that this is something you shouldn’t talk about. If you’re struggling, you should know that you can talk to someone about it.”
Already there are hopeful signs. In each class presentation, kids can write on an exit slip if they are worried about themselves or a friend and want to talk to a counselor.
“It’s been amazing how many kids have been willing to self identify,” Zimmerman says. “And it’s kids who haven’t been on anybody’s radar.”
Those are exactly the kids she wants to reach, the ones she feels so honored to help.