Signs of Suicide

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014. Flames danced in the frigid night air as students, faculty and friends gathered in the middle of the football stadium at Dublin Coffman High School for a somber vigil. Sobs, sniffles and soft whispers echoed throughout the crowd, while one question hung over the gathering - "Why?"

Why did a student, classmate, teammate and friend - a young man so full of promise, laughter and good cheer - make the tragic decision to end his own life the night before? He was only 16.

"It's impossible to wrap one's head around." said Noreen Sallustro whose daughter was a friend and classmate of the teen. "It shook the kids up, but I think it also raised their awareness to the private struggles of their friends, and the importance of reaching out when they are feeling down. I think it showed them, too, how many people out there really do care."

Schools play an important role in suicide prevention by providing support and guidance to adolescent children in crisis. Most schools have crisis-response protocol and resources available and encourage students to seek help if they feel they, or a friend, are in need of support.

"Our main message to students who are worried about themselves or others is to speak up," says Marci Ewing, a school counselor at Coffman H.S. "We encourage them to tell a school counselor, teacher, trusted adult - someone, so that we can put supports in place to best help the student in need."

But schools cannot handle this crisis alone.

Adolescent suicide statistics are not only startling, they are on the rise. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death nationwide in children ages 10 to 19. Franklin County lost 13 teenagers in 2014 to suicide, and in the first half of 2015, the number stood at seven. This is a drastic increase when compared to the statistics between 2007 and 2010 where an average of one or two youth suicides were reported each year.

What is behind this growing epidemic?

That is the question Dr. Jeff Bridge is determined to answer. Bridge is an internationally known suicidologist and director of the new Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children's Hospital (NCH) in Columbus. Bridge and his team are working to pinpoint factors that identify youth who have developed an increased risk for suicidal behavior, and then cycle that information into more effective prevention and treatment programs.

Working alongside Bridge is Dr. John Ackerman, a child and adolescent psychologist in Behavioral Health at NCH. Ackerman steers the S.O.S. (Signs of Suicide) program there: It raises awareness of suicide risk in local schools and communities. Along with the Center, the S.O.S. program offers prevention and crisis management consultation at no cost to schools that are looking to strengthen and expand their existing programs.

Another part of NCH's initiative provides intervention tools for students in need of support. It teaches middle and high school students to act immediately when they see warning signs in themselves or others. The program teaches them steps of action to take in the event that an immediate response is needed to save someone's life.

"One of the biggest myths out there," said Bridge, "is that talking to children about suicide will plant the idea in their head or push them to act. This is absolutely not true. Talking to children and teaching them about the warning signs and how to act is important."

Research and awareness are key in combating this epidemic, but the Center also hopes to destigmatize mental illness and its treatment. By drawing attention to the physiologicalcauses of mental illness and the effective treatments for depression, anxiety and other mental conditions, the shame and embarrassment that keep teens and their families from seeking treatment should be lifted, saving lives.

Following the December 2014 vigil, a group of Coffman students worked through the night taping red hearts to nearly 2,000 student lockers - every locker in the building - with a very important message: "You are loved."

There may be times when things seem hopeless, but there are resources available and there are people who care. Many more than a teen may realize.

"Suicide is preventable," said Bridge. "We know this. We want to give kids hope. We want them to know that life is theonly option."