The Suicide Prevention Coalition of Seneca, Sandusky and Wyandot Counties met last week to gather ideas and make plans for the coming year. Although attendance was low, members were encouraged by the presence of three students from Fremont Tech Center in Sandusky County.
For the students' benefit, Sue Cunningham of Firelands Counseling and Recovery called for introductions and gave an overview of the the coalition's accomplishments. She said the group hopes to expand with new members and is open to suggestions for additional programs and activities. Despite cuts in funding and staff for many agencies, Cunningham said, the coalition has survived and even grown.
"We went from one person in Wyandot County to them starting their own coalition," Cunningham said. "We'd like to replicate the same thing in Sandusky County and, ultimately, the idea is for each county to have its own group and then meet together on a quarterly basis for a three-county meeting."
Nancy Steyer of the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board said Sandusky County plans to ask voters for a mental health levy again this spring to improve services in that county. The levy has failed in previous attempts, but it has gained some support in the process.
Seneca and Wyandot county voters have approved levies in their counties.
Alice Frazier Snook, representing Community Hospice, reminded the group her agency hosts the Survivors of Suicide support group 7-9 p.m. the second Thursday of each month at 181 E. Perry St., with Karen Goshe as moderator. Family and friends of survivors also are welcome to attend.
Frazier Snook said the coalition is a way to prevent the heartbreak of suicide.
"I just think it's a very worthwhile effort, and I wish that more people would become involved. Suicide is a problem in our community and in every community. ... We're not going to be able to do this by ourselves," she said.
Cunningham told the coalition the Fremont Tech students had come to describe the suicide prevention awareness program they organized as a senior project. Chantel Kromer of Gibsonburg and Jill Iby and Becca Evans of Fremont said they have been giving their presentation on teen suicide for middle school students in Sandusky County.
Because the girls are about to graduate, they wanted to share their findings with someone who could continue doing the work they had started.
"Just in Gibsonburg, we've had three suicides in the past couple years, so we thought it was becoming a problem," Kromer said.
At the outset, the girls had to consider the age group at which to target the information. They ruled out educating people their own age because high school students might not take them seriously, while elementary students might be too young to understand the severity of the problem. They gave their initial program in Gibsonburg at the end of the school year in 2011.
Iby, Evans and Kromer said they sent home permission slips describing the content that would be discussed. Students were not required to participate, and those who did take part could omit the surveys or an activity, if they were uncomfortable with it.
The girls decided to conduct the activities in classrooms or small group settings that would be more private than a larger gathering.
They put together a Power-Point program with video clips, statistics and other information. The opening slide says "Suicide is a permanent fix to a temporary problem." The girls asked students if they understood the meaning of the statement, and they tried to put everything into terms that are honest and understandable. To review the concepts and terms, they devised bingo cards.
Another activity the girls described was called "Lifesaver." Students received sheets of colored paper to place at their desks. Then they were asked to move around the room and write a positive comment about each classmate on that person's paper. Afterward, most of the students posted the sheets in their lockers.
"They had a lot of fun with it and it made them feel really good," Kromer said. "One kid was just ecstatic when he got his paper back."
"Just the writing nice things, that made their day ... 'They think I'm pretty?' 'They think I'm nice? I'm smart?' Sometimes that's all a kid needs - to know other people think many positive things about them," Iby added.
"I like that idea even for adults," Cunningham said. "People who get to the place where they are contemplating attempting suicide have no hope left ... They don't realize that somebody out there cares about them."
For a third activity, the girls passed out yellow ribbons and instructed the middle school students to give the ribbons to people who had made a difference in their lives. The students told Iby about teachers and family members they wanted to have the ribbons. The girls received a letter about one ribbon that ended up overseas with a person in the military.
After each presentation, the girls pass around a post-survey. One question asks what students found most surprising in the program. Many were surprised to learn the number of teens who commit suicide each year in the United States. Others said they were not aware bullying could have such a devastating effect on some teens. The presentation uses the term "bullycide."
Iby said responses on the surveys also show many young students have contemplated ending their own lives. After their program, the principal informed them three Gibsonburg students had come forward to seek help.
"People don't think, in middle school, that these kids are thinking about something like this. It's sad to think it's happening and schools don't really know how to help kids," Iby said.
"We did a mixture (of classes) at both schools ... we went three days, and every day we went, we had about 12 kids in each class who said they had thought about suicide," Evans said.
Cunningham interjected she was shocked at how even very young students may think about suicide. She knew of a six-year-old client who had considered it. The girls' surveys have uncovered the extent of bullying in a small community. At Gibsonburg alone, 68 percent of the eighth graders reported being bullied. Iby wondered how many others might have been hesitant to admit bullying experiences.
Getting suicide prevention programs into the schools has been a struggle, Cunningham said, and she was pleased the girls had been successful. Having the information come from student instructors probably makes it more meaningful than hearing it from adults, she said.
In a letter to the girls, the Gibsonburg principal said he had been apprehensive about letting them speak to children on such a sensitive issue. After attending their program and observing students' attentiveness and responses, the principal was convinced the girls were well-prepared for the task. His recommendation allowed them to address Fremont students with a shorter program. Evans and Iby said they could not remember ever having a suicide program or speaker in their school.
The trio has yet to visit schools in Clyde. Cunningham said schools are always worried that discussing suicide might incite more students to harm themselves. Even though television programs feature stabbings and shootings, young viewers may not have a realistic idea of pain, or realize the ripple effect on families and friends of the victims.
Issues once taboo, such as teen pregnancy and drug use, have been added to school curriculums - but not suicide. Cunningham said students need to know what to do if they find themselves in dangerous situations or states of mind. Iby said youth may not know how to tell their teachers or parents what they are feeling. Some believe their parents don't care.
"It made me cry a few times, reading through how some of these kids feel," Iby said.
"We go through warning signs, too, because most kids don't know what the warning signs are," Evans said.
The girls have incorporated an acronym, "ACT," into their presentation. It stands for "acknowledge," "care" and "tell." They also specify that "tell" does not mean to spread gossip but to tell someone who could help the person feeling suicidal. The young women are willing to do follow-up programs, if schools request them. Shannon Maag of CROSSWAEH said such a program could also be helpful to youth in detention centers.
The girls' teacher at Fremont Tech asked them to give their program to fellow classmates, who responded with encouragement to project. They are to showcase the suicide awareness project at Sentinel in February and present it for the Skills USA competition later this spring. Iby hopes the outreach will give their efforts even more exposure and help others to develop similar projects.
"This is not just for a project ... This means more to us than just a grade. It's a chance for an impact we really want to make. It's important to us," she said.
Learning not to judge people also has been helpful to Iby. As she prepares to go to college, she said will take her new awareness and sensitivity with her as she makes acquaintances. Cunningham said teachers need to be more in tune with students, notice when something is amiss, alert parents and direct families to someone who can help.
The trio said they have given out the "We Care" packages from the coalition to teachers and guidance counselors at the schools where they presented. Now, they want the coalition to have their materials as a starting point for doing more programs in the schools.
"We just want this to keep going because it's so important to us," Iby said. "Who knows how many more kids can be out there thinking the same thing?"