Prevention *and* Build Quality In – how can we help stem teen suicide?

Last night, over 1000 people gathered in the auditorium of our local high school to learn what it is the school and school system and their partners will be doing to respond to the rash of suicides that has plagued our school as well as surrounding schools in recent years. At our school, we have had three in each of the past two years – two just last week.
This picture shows everyone introducing themselves.

2014-03-05 19.23.08

I was skeptical that this event would meet my needs. The invitation email made it seem like the evening would be a ‘one-way street’ of information to the parents and audience members. Aside from the introductions shown in the picture and some interaction in the cafeteria at the end, that is the way the evening largely played out.

Who came? The media, the Superintendent of Schools, School Board Members, many community mental health service organizations, representatives of several foundations concerned with suicide, and student representatives from a group called Active Minds. The evening started with formal introductions, statements of intent to engage the community, recognitions of the school leadership, staff, and teachers.  This felt like armor.  I was hearing too much left brain analysis/problem solving and needing more that leaders show vulnerability and emotion. I wanted connection from the heart.  I felt alone in this sea of people – surely similar to the way a quiet teen might feel navigating the halls of a 2000 person high school.

To help allay fears of parents, Dr. Panarelli, Director of the Office of Intervention and Prevention, described how the crisis counselors are actively engaging with the students, seeking out and making themselves available all around the school. She asked us to not talk about each incident as being part of a pattern or naming the school as somehow different, as this would make the kids feel bad. [Note to self: this is hard to do]  She asked us: do your kids have 3 adults other than parents that they feel they can talk to if they or others around them are experiencing emotional difficulties? None of this made me feel reassured. I tried to empathize with these presenters. After 6 suicides in two years and many more within the county as a whole, they are visibly taking on a big communication and mobilization effort. The goal is so much bigger than any one person or organization. Kudos to everyone trying.

Jesse Ellis, the County’s ‘Prevention Manager’ (as if this could be managed), said he will leave no gap unfilled. He will be ‘sure’ we will be successful. He will coordinate activities, invite parents to participate.  To me this is exactly the wrong message. We don’t need a false sense of we’re in control now. We need to model that we may not prevent the next one, but it won’t happen without us putting forth our best effort. We need to show our own vulnerability and not be shamed when we fail. Then he cautioned us that while he doesn’t want to use stats, he did want to share that we are on a good track compared to the rest of the state. This statement made my heart sink. It also seemed incongruent and impersonal. I don’t think he meant it that way. He is coping with the aftermath, trying to make sense. This is my most liberal interpretation.

The students from the Active Minds Club spoke next. They have had mental health awareness training. They provide yoga classes to reduce stress after school. They listen non-judgmentally and provide emotional support.

After the representatives spoke, we filled out survey cards with our suggestions, inviting us to share our contact information and ideas. I wrote down that I would help facilitate an open space event to allow more interaction, connection, dialogue and community involvement. We were then invited to visit the cafeteria where we could take fliers and information with us. It was too crowded, but there was a lot of energy. I made sure to visit the Active Minds booth. I was very impressed by the listening skills of the 4 student reps as I stayed to chat with them for a few minutes. I will encourage my son to check out this organization especially as it is largely thus far a college campus organization. I signed up to help them and to attend their meetings in the coming months.

If I could pick an analogy for this whole school effort, it seemed to me like a lot of Quality Control at the back-end of a development process. ‘We know there are depressed kids, let’s make sure we catch them before they commit suicide’. I wanted it this: ‘We imagine the source of suicides is that kids are many times unable to express and share their feelings, their fears and their vulnerabilities. They do not have role models for this. To succeed in raising mentally healthy adults, we need to start in the elementary schools, modeling and teaching empathy, emotional intelligence and resiliency’. I wanted to hear things like: We’ll be introducing Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violdent Communication in elementary school.’  This would be akin to ‘building quality in’, in software terms, not inspecting for failure at the end.

Yet still, I praise everyone who showed up last night. Bless you all.

There is a lot of work ahead. I just pray one or many of us will be there in support, at just the right time, for the next kid who needs it.

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3 Comments on “Prevention *and* Build Quality In – how can we help stem teen suicide?”

  1. T. Bird Says:

    You were not alone in feeling as you did. Not at all!

    • Andrea Chiou Says:

      Thank you for sharing that. Now that I am on the Community of Solutions FB group, I already feel better and less ‘alone’, though not more confident in the school (system) overall.

  2. Karen Bontrager Says:

    With gratitude I write this post for your courage to say the unsaid thing. I felt deeply moved to attend the Woodson event because I really care about the welfare of these kids. Let me explain. For five years, I have been on a personal quest to discover why 16-24 year olds gets involved in unhealthy dating relationships because I have personally experienced the scourge of dating violence myself.

    From my formal and informal research at George Mason University and in the surrounding community, I have learned that these young people often do not have self-love, and don’t know how to communicate their needs, especially young men. This overwhelm, often leads them to striking out in anger or in other very unhealthy ways. As a result, I believe that some of the answer lies in getting quiet and beginning to really listen to them.

    I would welcome the opportunity to speak with you, but I don’t know who you are or how to get in contact with you.

    Keep writing because you are saying the thing that needs to be said, but is not being addressed.

    Karen Bontrager
    kbontrag@masonlive.gmu.edu
    571.471.9086


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