Finding words to talk about the suicide deaths of three Columbus teens who would have been sophomores at East High School this fall is difficult.
Two died around the start of classes this fall. Another classmate died of suicide about 14 months earlier.
But Thursday, National Suicide Prevention Day, a group of family and friends are asking area high school students to spend about an hour talking about suicide prevention and their grief over the deaths of classmates.
From 7 to 8:30 p.m. in East’s auditorium, students will gather to watch a documentary and hear experts talk about suicide prevention.
Community resource tables will consist of therapists, support groups and medical personnel to provide contact information and guidance.
And there will be large rolls of paper and markers, said Jennifer Wright-Berryman, a social worker and professor who is helping organize the event. Anyone who wishes may express his or her feelings on the paper — with drawings, messages or memories, she said.
The messages and artwork will be saved and displayed during next May’s Out of the Darkness Campus walk, which supports suicide prevention efforts in Columbus.
“This is just really heartbreaking,” she said of the loss of the students.
Also Thursday, during school lunch hours at six BCSC middle schools and high schools, tables will be staffed with mental health professionals who will distribute information about that evening’s event, Wright-Berryman said. Tables will be set up at Columbus North, Columbus East and New Tech high schools; Central and Northside middle schools; and McDowell Education Center.
If just one student shows up at the lunchtime tables or at Thursday night’s event and finds what he or she needs or learns who to talk to, that will make the effort a success, said Kisha Allman, a volunteer for the local chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which is helping organize the event.
Losing a student a year
Allman, who is in her sixth year of organizing suicide-prevention efforts, including the annual Out of the Darkness Campus walks, said Bartholomew County has lost a high school student to suicide each year since she began coordinating suicide prevention efforts in Columbus about five years ago.However, she acknowledged that having two students die by suicide within two weeks is out of the ordinary.The idea for Thursday’s discussion came out of social-media interactions Wright-Berryman and others had following the most recent student suicide deaths.
“The atypicalness of both youth’s deaths — that they were both athletes and involved in school activities — made it feel so overwhelming,” she said.
Wright-Berryman said that, as a social worker, she recognized a community need after seeing social-media posts from Columbus residents full of grief, anger and frustration at the loss of the teens.
On her own Facebook page, Wright-Berryman posted that her heart was sad and that she was grieving for the community.
What started as a group of about 75 people interacting on social media rapidly ballooned to more than 1,800, she said.
Working with Allman, the two decided to channel the deep feelings into an event to help teens and adults learn more about suicide prevention.
“We are trying to get across to students there is always help,” Allman said. “There is someone to talk to.”
For Allman, suicide prevention is personal, as her father died by suicide.
Fear of revealing thoughts
Allman said many teens are deeply afraid of admitting to being depressed or even thinking that they might have a mental illness. Instead of reaching out for help, she said, they become very quiet.Thursday’s event is designed to make a presence of suicide prevention in front of everyone, Allman said.
“It’s OK to talk about it,” Allman said of the issue of suicide. “The entire theory that talking about it encourages it has been totally debunked.”
Through the event, organizers hope to promote mental health services, relationships within families and connections to community resources that could help.
“Suicide prevention is crisis intervention,” Wright-Berryman said.
Many of the resource connections being offered Thursday are about offering a way for someone to reach out for help.
Organizers have no idea how many people might attend Thursday night but hope to make it an annual event.
And they hope it will address some of the concerns, pain and grief being experienced by young people in the community who might wonder about what has happened and whether it could be prevented.
“People don’t take their own lives because someone else did it,” Wright-Berryman said of the close succession of the deaths.
Those who die by suicide are in deep pain and want that pain to end, she said.
The response to the event so far — from school officials, parents, teachers, counselors and mental health professionals — has been somewhat hypervigilant since the deaths, and work needs to continue to educate young people, she said.
“These were isolated cases, and that’s very surprising,” Wright-Berryman said, noting that the deaths occurred in such a close time frame but were unrelated.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” she said.