Teen suicide: What one American county is doing to get students to talk about suicide

People in Berks County, Pennsylvania have some advice for towns like Woodstock, Ontario going through a suicide crisis:

Talk about it.

READ MORE: ‘Suicide contagion’ feared in Woodstock, Ont., after string of youth suicides

They’re walking their talk on this too. After facing 55 suicides in the county in 2015 (out of a population of about 415,000) they decided it was time to take action.

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  • Students walk out of classes after 5 youth suicides in Woodstock, Ont.

  • ‘Suicide contagion’ feared in Woodstock, Ont., after string of youth suicides

    They’ve been hitting the airwaves, the stage and the baseball field to spread the message: it’s ok to talk about suicide, you’re not the only person who’s had these feelings and there is help out there for you.

    “I think the whole past thinking of it was, don’t talk about it because it will cause you to do it, and you should be ashamed of it and just get over it,” said Edward Michalik, Berks County’s mental health and developmental disabilities administrator.

    “That couldn’t be more wrong. That’s what we’re trying to tell people: it’s normal, we’ll get you through it, there are other people that are struggling with it.”

    One of the ways they’re getting the message out is through a play, performed by local middle and high school students, that frankly discusses suicide.

    In that play, called “Between Apartment 2B and the Endzone”, the students tell stories based on the experiences of real youth and talk about the outcome — whether that person killed themselves, or not, and what the impact of that decision was.

    And panel discussions featuring people who had lost family members to suicide, or attempted suicide themselves really brought the message to people, says Michalik.

    “They talked about their experiences how, in a nutshell, suicide is not an end. It may be the end for the people who commit it, but it’s the beginning of a lifetime of all kinds of struggles and trauma for all those who were left behind,” he said.

    The student performers were “very into it,” he said. “The play, talking to them afterward and even before, represents some of the struggles they see among their peers and they felt compelled to do this to make a difference.”

    They’ve been performing at high schools all around the county. And the audience reaction at a recent public performance was “very powerful.”

    Baseball games and TV commercials

    But Berks County is doing more than putting on a play. They also recently sponsored a night at the local minor baseball game. The Fightin Phils played in front of a crowd of 6,300 people, who all saw messages about suicide prevention on the Jumbotron and took a try at a dunk tank, dunking prominent members of the mental health community and getting information on local mental health resources while they stood in line.

    The county has set up a website, called ruOK Berks?, filled with mental health resources.

    And Michalik himself has taken to the airwaves, in a public service announcement broadcast on local ESPN and Fox channels.

    Although his group has only been at it for a few months, Michalik believes their actions are having an impact.

    “People are literally coming out of the woodwork to tell their stories, to start talking about it,” he said.

    Since his TV appearances, Michalik himself has been approached many times. “Wherever I go, people say, ‘My god, you’re in my living room at midnight talking about suicide.’ And then they go on to talk about their own stories.”

    “I went to pay my taxes, and my tax collector started crying because she said she saw the television video and her husband had committed suicide a year ago and she wishes people would have talked about it.”

    And now that people are talking about it, he hopes they are getting the help they need. At performances of the play, for example, they had people present who could help the audience talk through their experiences. Months of planning went into preparing these resources before the campaign went public, he said.

    “You can’t bring this play to a school if you don’t have enough support for the student body and the faculty because chances are not only has the student body experienced it, you’ve got faculty members who have lost their own family members.”

    Keeping the dialogue open is important, he said. “It has to be a community effort and it has to be an open dialogue and one that’s not sanitized. The minute someone starts crying about it, you don’t whisk them away so no one sees them crying about it.”

    Woodstock walkout

    High school students in Woodstock, Ontario walked out of class Tuesday to call for action after a string of suicides in that community.

    Some students wanted improved access to counsellors so they could do exactly what Berks County is doing: talk about suicide. The Thames Valley District School Board said Thursday that they have mental health professionals in each high school and have added additional resources.

    School board officials will hold a public meeting June 22, which will include parents, caregivers and community agencies to discuss the supports and community programs available to youth over the summer.

    If you, a family member or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, or you believe they may be suffering from severe depression and/or anxiety, there are many organizations available to help including the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.  A lengthy list can be found here.


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