Therapists offer tips, mental-health support in wake of Wendell student's death

Thursday, September 8, 2022
Therapists offers tips, support in wake of Wendell student's death
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Parents shouldn't shy away from discussing suicide and mental health with their children, a therapist says.

WENDELL, N.C. (WTVD) -- Less than two hours after school began at Wendell Middle School on Tuesday, the body of an eighth-grade student was found on campus.

The discovery led to the early dismissal for the school's students and staff.

"It is an unexpected loss, and we are saddened by it. Our condolences, thoughts, and prayers go out to his family and his friends," said Principal Catherine Trudell in an email to families. "As a parent or guardian, you have the opportunity to decide if this is information you want to share."

Jessica Pendergrass said her son's favorite color was red, he loved turtles and dad jokes and he played the trombone in band. She released red balloons in honor of her son Austin, who was 13-years-old, at Knightdale Station Park.

"Unfortunately it just got to the point where bullying overtook him," Pendergrass said.

Pendergrass said last week her son tried to harm himself at school, and she was also sent a link to sign Austin up for virtual school.

"I really hope that this can bring some awareness to other parents to check on their kids, be mean, go through their social media, go through their phones and find out what's going on," she said.

She said the school knew and they knew too but she felt powerless as to where to turn or what to do.

"I wouldn't wish this on any parent but I think they need to make some serious changes in the school system with how they address mental health, how they address bullying," said Pendergrass. "Just make sure that we listen that we listen to our kids and we know what's going on and just hug your kids a little tighter."

The news of this Austin's untimely death came the same day Wake County Public School leaders discussed an update on the district's mental health plan. The pilot plan, which just finished phase two, focuses on addressing the mental, emotional and social, and substance abuse concerns of students across the district's campuses.

"School-based mental health is now available at 40 schools and eight total mental health providers are serving WCPSS students and families," said a district employee in Tuesday evening's meeting.

Therapist Ashley Gilmore with Gilmore Counseling Services said parents can also get involved by talking with their children about mental health, especially suicide.

"Creating an atmosphere at home that is safe for them, but being a safe place for them, no judgment, no consequences in some cases, and allowing them to be completely themselves and free," Gilmore said, "gives them the space to be more vulnerable with the parent."

Additionally, parents can also find it quite difficult to discuss heavy topics, such as death, with their kids.

"I know that this is so hard because of the finality of it, but have a conversation about when that really means that you don't come back from this life," added Gilmore. "There's no coming back from this. We don't see you anymore. You don't see us anymore. We don't want to instill fear in them, but we do want to scale the seriousness and what impact really means."

In her message to families, Trudell wrote, "These are heavy moments that we will work through together as a school family."

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, please dial 988 for immediate assistance.