Vail Daily column: Suicide prevention and our children
Special to the Daily
Vail, CO Colorado
In November, a group of community volunteers, all members of the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Vail and the Eagle Valley, taught a series of suicide-prevention classes at Berry Creek Middle School. Suicide is a scary topic, one that even we adults don’t like to talk about. I would like to share with you my experience about what it was like to talk to the middle schoolers about suicide.
First of all, it was fun! What I love about children is that they say it like it is. They also absorb only as much as they are able to, and everything else just bounces off. TeenLINK, the name of the program, is a “best practice” comprehensive suicide-prevention program utilized by school districts throughout the country. I followed lesson plans that were developed through evidence-based research. The goal of the program is to empower students so that they know what to do when confronted with a friend who might be feeling suicidal. The program increases their awareness of the warning signs of depression and suicidal thoughts in their peers. Everyone in my group of approximately 40 children knew what suicide was. No one knew how prevalent it is in our valley. The children did not know that suicide is the leading cause of death among young people in Colorado.
In the first week session, I discussed personal power with the middle schoolers. We defined personal power as the ability that each of us has to impact our world. Personal power is about making decisions on which path to take when we come to a fork in the world. It means taking responsibility, knowing when to ask for help, helping others. We talked about how each one of us makes a difference in the world and in the people around us. We ended the class by saying that the purpose of the TeenLINK class was to give each student personal power and the knowledge to intervene in someone’s life if they had reason to think that someone may be thinking of taking their own life.
During the second week session, we talked about the difference between sadness, depression and thoughts of suicide. We talked about how all of us feel depressed at times and what we can do to help ourselves when we do. The children asked me questions about antidepressants and how they worked. We spoke of how exercise is a great thing to do when we are in a funk, and the boys all spoke about video games as a helpful mechanism, while the girls talked about hanging out with their friends and shopping.
Finally, we spoke about what LINK, in TeenLINK, stands for: look/listen, inquire, note level of risk and know available resources.
There was some spare time at the end of this class, so I asked the kids if they wanted to do some role playing. I pretended to be the suicidal friend, and two students volunteered to try to talk to me. The first one tried telling me that “I shouldn’t be feeling this way.” We adults know that when we’re down and out, being told that we shouldn’t be feeling the way we’re feeling is tremendously unhelpful.
Then a second student volunteered to talk to me. He empathized with how I was feeling (the look/listen objective), he asked me how I was going to do it (inquiring and noting the level of risk), which I told him, and then he did something wonderful. He started asking me questions about what we could go do to get me past this moment.
He asked me if I wanted to go play soccer, go to a movie. He must have asked me 10 different questions until he stumbled upon the one I responded to.
“Do you want to go get some ice cream?”
“Yes, I do, chocolate ice cream at that.”
What had this student achieved? He kept after me until he got a response. That took perseverance and guts because he didn’t know me. It also brought humor into the classroom when it was much needed. As we wrapped up, we discussed that the next step would have been to find an adult resource that could help me.
At the beginning of the third and final session, all of the students remembered the chocolate ice cream story. I reviewed with the children what they had learned, and they were asked to fill out a questionnaire. Here are some of their comments:
“What I liked best was that I learned how to save a friend’s life.”
“I liked that we learned how to help other people.”
“Now I can save a life.”
“I liked that we know the signs so that no other person we know will get hurt without trying to help them.”
Of the 350 middle schoolers who participated in these classes, 15 noted on their questionnaire the name of someone they were deeply concerned about. This information was passed on to the school counselors, who were going to follow up.
Thank you to Meredith Van Ness and the Eagle River Youth Coalition for launching this program in our valley. Thank you to Vail Valley Cares through which a grant was provided to underwrite this education. It is the goal of the Suicide Prevention Coalition to offer this program in all the area middle and high schools. My message to you is talk to your kids! They know much more than we think they do, they think about many things that we don’t even know are on their radar screen, and they are hungry for knowledge. Funding is available to offer this program in the other area schools.
Elizabeth Myers is the executive director of the Samaritan Counseling Center. She can be reached at 970-926-8558. Visit the center’s website at http://www.samaritan-vail.org for more information.