A Conversation with Middle School Teacher Brittany Joyner

Recently we spoke with J.E.H. Foundation member Brittany Joyner about her experience partaking in our QPR suicide prevention training course. Brittany works as a middle school educator and has recently begun overseeing the new North Richland Middle School Hope Squad (peer-to-peer suicide prevention group).

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How did you know Jordan (the namesake of the Foundation)?

Brittany: I knew Jordan in high school. Even though she was a year younger than me we were in a lot of the same organizations, especially STUCO (student council), and the thing everybody remembers about Jordan is just her joy. It just radiated off of her. She was kind to every single person. My mom taught her. She was one of her all time favorite students, just a really special person.

When Jordan passed away it was so shocking because she was such a perfect person in everybody’s eyes. And you just wanted it to feel like it was one of those independent scenarios, and that it would never happen again. Like you would never be affected again.

And then, when my dad died by suicide in 2015 it was a whole different slew of emotions. It’s crazy how one event, one decision by someone can set off a chain event and impact so many lives. It just makes you stop and think about all these feelings that are going on around you that you may have no idea about. And how crucial it is that we’re all aware of everybody. And helping everybody.

How have you coped with the loss of your father to suicide?

B: When my dad passed away it was very sudden, very shocking, and there was a lot of anger that came with it, perhaps because of a selfishness thing, and so right after I started going to S.O.S. (survivors of suicide) meetings put on by Tarrant County, and those meetings are really great, you’re sitting in a room full of other people who have also recently lost someone to suicide. The resource is incredible, but it is really sad, and it didn’t feel like I was helping anybody. And so I knew that I had to channel this negative energy I had into something positive. And I really believe that if you’re not part of the solution then you’re part of the problem.

So I was wondering what can I do, how can I help, and then The Jordan Elizabeth Harris Foundation just fell right into my lap. Kristi Wiley (Foundation Program Coordinator) showed up at one of our faculty meetings and I thought Duh! This is perfect! So I immediately signed up for a QPR class and went straight to our counselor and said I have got to be involved with Hope Squad…it’s really important for me to be as knowledgable about this as possible. So since then I’ve gone to three QPR trainings and every time I take something different away from it. I’m just trying to get as involved as possible in the prevention side of the issue.

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How receptive are people generally to the notion of suicide prevention training?

B: Often when I tell someone I took a suicide prevention class they say “oh, that’s nice…” and clearly it’s a bit awkward for them, and it’s unfortunate that this serious topic which affects so many people is so difficult to discuss. But Kristi (who runs the QPR training sessions) is so energetic and easy to talk to and knowledgeable and sympathetic that it’s very relaxing and rewarding.

Anyone I speak to, I tell them this is something you need to do, that your neighbors needs to do, that your family needs to do. Because too often we help with a cause only after it hits close to home, but how great would it be to go your entire life and never be affected by suicide! And I really think QPR & bringing the conversation to light & erasing the stigmas, that all of that combined can help make that idea a reality.

How does learning QPR help you to prevent suicides?

B: “Confidence and competence” is what they say in the training. In the beginning of the session you get a pre-assessment which asks how comfortable you’d be in each of the following situations, and I think for all of us, if someone was standing there stating “oh my gosh, I need help, help me” that we would step up and do something. But it’s the silent majority that makes it more difficult. Am I really confident enough to walk up to someone out of the blue and say “Hey, how are you? How do you feel? Are you doing alright? How can I help you?” And QPR educates you in exactly how to do that, what to actually say to someone you’re worried about. And you actually practice it in the class so that by the end you definitely feel confident enough to say, “This is something I could do. I could help somebody. I hope I never have to use it, but if I do, I’m ready to have that talk with someone.”

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What grade level & subjects do you teach?

B: I teach 7th grade English Language Arts & Reading.

How is it different looking at mental health & depression from a teacher’s perspective?

B: Well, QPR training completely changed how I speak to the kids. It’s so critical for the livelihood of our kids that we know how to communicate to them in a way they can understand. And I was definitely guilty before of kind of undervaluing their feelings or, when they’d cry because of a bad grade I’d just say “oh, you’re fine, you’ll get over it”, or the same if they’re upset because of drama, because it’s 7th grade and there’s drama every day. But QPR made me take a step back and think, just because it may not be meaningful to me, it probably is meaningful and impactful to them.

And also it’s just about being direct and asking that question which is so hard to say which is “are you thinking about suicide.” And it’s uncomfortable but it’s so necessary, and QPR has just made me more aware of how I speak to them, and how I’m trying to teach them to speak to each other.

Before Hope Squad, how extensive would you say is the student mental healthcare provided by public schools?

B: Oh gosh, it’s minimal. It’s so bad. I mean, some districts do a good job. Maybe if your school has more funding or smaller class sizes or whatever the dream school might be, then that’s something. But improved mental healthcare could be as simple as a 15 minute recess for kids, no matter what grade they’re in. Let ‘em run around the football field.

We’re just not giving kids enough chances for relief throughout the day. It’s “Go sit in class—go sit in class—go sit in class.” And we’re not even having a chance to open up those conversations like “Hey, how are you feeling? How are you doing?” And there’s a huge need for all schools to really listen to our kids and to try to find a way to reach them that’s not through social media or through an assignment. And just really building those relationships.

On the whole, we could do so much more for them.

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How do middle school kids talk about suicide and mental health?

B: I think that kids are going to feel about suicide however their parents feel. Or however their parents have talked to them. And if their parents haven’t spoken to them about depression or about suicide at all, the only prior knowledge they’re going to have is something from Netflix, something from Youtube. And the majority of that either makes light of the situation or doesn’t begin to cover the despair it can truly cause. And so for kids, when they see a Youtuber make comments like “Go kill yourself!” then they think, ‘wow, he got 9,000 views from that so I should talk like that!’.

I honestly believe in what Kristi says in QPR, which is that even severely depressed kids do NOT actually want to die. I think that’s true. And I think that kids aren’t getting the knowledge they need because their parents aren’t knowledgeable enough. And they aren’t being taught anything about mental health in the correct light.

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How are the topics of mental health, depression, and suicide specifically sensitive to middle school students?

B: Middle school is weird, on so many levels. You have these sweet 6th graders coming from elementary that are so innocent. And their parents don’t want them talking about these heavy subjects. But at the same time they’re on the same campus with 13 & 14 year olds who have matured in those three years and they are talking about those difficult subjects.

So I think parents have a large responsibility to be opening up these discussions about mental health and suicide with their kids before they hear about it from the wrong kids at school. Parents have to get more involved because these kids are going through so much. Hormones are a thing, harder tests, different groups of friends, athletics, the list goes on and on. These pressures get to them, and if we’re not giving them the tools and coping skills to deal with these things prior to dealing with the issue, then we’re really doing a disservice to the kids. So we really have to give them these skills before it becomes an issue.

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photography & interview by Dyar Bentz