When it comes to scary words, suicide tops the list of most parents. Statistically, suicide is the second leading cause of death in young people ages 10 to 34, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). As suicide rates rise, local organizations are working to reach youth and teach them resiliency amidst an ocean of trauma.
One of those organizations is the Northland Coalition, the parent organization of more than 20 smaller coalitions in Clay, Platte and Ray counties. Jennifer says that the Northland Coalition is focused on preventing suicide through a variety of tactics, working with both parents, teachers and kids.
Suicide prevention specialist for Tri-County Mental Health Services Emily Robinson says that reaching the youth involves reaching the adults in their lives. That means working with local schools to try to build up the protective factors in students' lives—strong friendships, healthy coping tactics, and trusted adults, among others.
"We work with entire schools or communities because you can't assume who is high risk and who isn't. We are seeing an increase in those high-stress kids that are perceived as really successful having thoughts of suicide. We may have our adult blinders on when we see achievement that they don't need help or have issues. We also want them to have the skills and framework to help if their friends are struggling too. Although we want to think they will come to us as parents, more often than not, they turn to their peers instead," says Robinson.
Creating a framework for the youth to recognize risk factors is the basis of SOS Signs of Suicide, a program implemented in 42 schools across Clay, Platte and Ray counties this year. Robinson says it is one of the best evidence-based programs out there that involves the school, parents, and students. The program features age-appropriate video vignettes for grades 6-12, outlining potential scenarios where thoughts of suicide may occur and teach ways to identify high-risk students. SOS can be implemented in one class period and has resulted in a 40-60% decrease in self-reported suicide attempts according to randomized controlled studies.
Tri-County also offers youth mental health first aid training, which prepares youth to deal with friends that are struggling, not only with suicidal thoughts but also panic attacks, anxiety and a variety of other common issues. The training equips youth to keep their friends safe until an adult can intervene.
Recently, AT&T wanted to get involved with suicide prevention and chose Tri-County as its conduit. They funded the How Full is Your Cup campaign developed by students at Lawson High School. Robinson says that involving the youth in the development level is one of the keys to their success. Working with Tri-County to package and design and funded by ATT&T, the How Full is Your Cup campaign is now being slowly implemented across the Northland.
"It's essentially a healthy stress management skills program. It explains stress like a cup. The more stress you have in your life, the more your cup fills. The program centers on three main takeaways. One, everyone has a cup, and it fills up. Everyone experiences stress and loss, and that's OK. Two, everyone's cup fills up differently, so what might not affect one person may severely impact the next. Everyone experiences stress at a different level. And three, there are healthy ways to deal with that stress," says Robinson.
The program zooms in on two recurring ideas: trauma and resiliency. While many may think of trauma as an extreme action in a stereotypical way, Jennifer says that trauma can be different for every child.
"There's really no standard for what trauma looks like. Everyone deals with stress differently. Even within families, you may see different responses, and that's okay. Our goal is to see that trauma and acknowledge its impact and teach them how to bounce back," she says.
That bounce, more commonly known as resiliency in mental health circles, is a focus of all of the smaller coalitions in the area, including the recently formed Tonka Nation Teaching and Reaching Youth (Try). Tonka Try and others like it in the area are trying to bridge the gap between mental health professionals and the kids that don't know where to turn.
Tonka Try president Stephen Mattingly says that one of the things that add to the risk factors is the unwillingness of parents to talk openly about mental health struggles with their kids.
"It's easy to say, 'You've never thought about suicide, right?'. But that gives them an out, an opportunity to let them say no without any deeper discussion of possible stresses. Finding out that your child may be suicidal can make you feel like you've failed as a parent. But not having those conversations is where the real failure happens," says Mattingly.
Youth suicide isn't a problem that will be solved easily, but the people at the Northland Coalition, Tri-County Mental Health Services, and national organizations like NAMI, are doing their best to arm our youth with the tools they need to maintain their mental health and resiliency. If you're looking for additional resources, visit EncourageHopeAndHelp.com to access a broad spectrum of tools, including the SOS program, a suicide text line (741741), or the National Suicide Prevention Helpline at 1-800-273-8255.