A year ago, a Columbus community in mourning began a conversation about death by suicide after two Columbus East students died within a week just before the beginning of the 2015-16 school year.
Another East classmate died by suicide about 14 months before that.
Beginning tonight, the conversation will move to a focus on helping promote suicide prevention awareness and specifically on how to help someone in need who might be considering taking their own life.
A Suicide Prevention Awareness event will be from 7 to 8:30 p.m. today at Columbus North High School cafeteria, modeled after a similar inaugural event a year ago that brought together hundreds of local students to talk about death by suicide.
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On Thursday, all of Bartholomew Consolidated secondary schools will have two or three counselors at a table during school hours to offer information, guidance and support to any student who asks for help for themselves or a friend who might be intent on self-harm.
“In my 20 years here, one of the hard things I know, that we will lose four to five kids a year, and one of those will be death by suicide,” said Larry Perkinson, employee and student assistance coordinator for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.
But even with knowing that, Perkinson said the county has not had a suicide completion among the high school population in the past year, although he acknowledges there have been attempts.
“But we’ve not had silence either,” he said.
Part of the conversation
The Columbus community addressed the silence directly a year ago with its first forum, “Suicide … Let’s talk about it.” The event attracted hundreds of students who were encouraged to express their feelings through creating artwork later displayed at the annual Out of the Darkness campus walk which promotes suicide prevention and awareness.
Suicide has been reported as the second leading cause of death for those ages 15 to 34 in Indiana and the third leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 14, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.
A 2011 Indiana Youth Risk Behavior Survey from the Indiana Youth Institute indicated that nearly a third of high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more consecutive weeks. Eleven percent of Indiana high school students reported they attempted suicide in the previous year, ranking Indiana second among 43 states surveyed.
The Bartholomew County Emergency Operations Center received a total of 405 reports among suicide threats, suicide threats with injury or death by suicide. That number includes 14 deaths, seven in the city and seven in the county, director Ed Reuter said.
Reuter will be the featured speaker at tonight’s event at North High School, sharing a personal story of his work as an Indiana State Police trooper who talked with people threatening death by suicide. He will also share his experience of the aftermath of his father’s death by suicide 14 years ago.
“Nowhere in the world would I ever have imagined that my father would have done this,” Reuter said.
The experience of having a fellow trooper and a state police chaplain approach him with the news is ingrained in his mind, as he was on the other side of the experience of receiving such devastating news from police.
He remembers being grateful for all the people from the community and his church who spent time with him, just listening to him talk about it, he said.
“With this type of death, you want a reason, and you feel like you have been robbed of time — time you would have had with them. That’s how I felt after that happened,” he said.
“Here at the operations center, our dispatchers do a phenomenal job on these calls — they stay on the phone with folks until someone gets there,” he said of calls involving a suicide threat.
“Those can be long calls, six or seven minutes until someone gets there,” he said. “Sadly, sometimes the dispatcher is the last person they talk to.”
While Bartholomew County has not had a completed suicide attempt among its high school population since this time last year, a 2015 North graduate who had completed one year of college died by suicide earlier this year out of state, said Jennifer Wright-Berryman, a Columbus resident who is a college professor and social worker who helped organize last year’s suicide prevention event.
The toughest weeks
The beginning of a new school year is recognized by educators as among of the toughest weeks of the school year, Perkinson said.
Many of the calls to school officials involving someone threatening to harm themselves come at that time, he said.
In those early weeks, students have not yet had the opportunity to meet, connect and develop trust with individuals they can talk to about their feelings. And that’s what continues to worry school officials about the risk of death by suicide.
Over the course of a school year, roughly 90 to 100 incidents involve an individual reporting concern about themselves, or someone they know, talking about statements about self-harm or suicide, Perkinson said.
A community of counselors and community partners help the school system guide these individuals to help, Perkinson said.
Perkinson said when he counsels new teachers, he asks them to remember that they can’t make a “never” promise — that they will never tell, that they will keep something a secret, such as an individual making statements that they are thinking of harming themselves.
In the past year, an organized group of dedicated school professionals and volunteers have worked with student groups, teachers and social service agencies to make suicide prevention awareness a focus at the secondary school level.
Within the past year, eight seniors have done senior projects on suicide prevention, Perkinson said, and three were presented to health teachers in the school corporation.
Wright-Berryman, who started a blog to raise awareness that has more than 2,000 followers, is helping organize tonight’s event.
Last year’s gathering was about grieving and helping a group of people in crisis mode about losing the young people in such a short time, she said.
“We needed to learn to talk about it without the fear and without the stigma,” she said. “A lot of parents were coming forward (last year) and saying they were worried, and ‘Is my kid next?’ ” she said.
But while last year’s program was about grief and surviving, Wright-Berryman said this year is about action — implementing new community initiatives that will help youth and adults learn more about suicide prevention and put that information to use in their interactions.
Wright-Berryman is working with Centerstone to expand the offering of Mental Health First Aid, which trains an individual to help someone experiencing a mental health or substance abuse crisis, said Nicki Vreeland, who coordinates the Healthy Communities Mental Health and Substance Abuse Team.
Those attending the training learn risk factors and warning signs for mental health and addiction, strategies on how to help and resources where people may be referred. In the past year, scholarships and grants were provided to send 60 local educators and youth workers to the program.
Wright-Berryman is also working with primary care doctors throughout the community to encourage them to include depression screenings in their checkups with patients.
The new VIMCare Clinic at Columbus Regional Hospital, which serves patients who are under Indiana’s Medicaid program and those without insurance, has incorporated mental health services into its new business model.
While Mental Health First Aid requires a day-long commitment, Wright-Berryman is attending training for a two-hour program, “Question. Persuade. Refer.”, which is geared toward helping lay people identify who might be at risk for harming themselves and knowing how to get the person help.
‘The Hope Squad’
Ivy Tech Community College Columbus and IUPUC representatives are working with Wright-Berryman and other community members to establish The Hope Squad model, which was founded in Utah, she said.
The Hope Squad program provides peer-to-peer suicide prevention training which middle school, high school and college students then take into their worlds on campus.
“It trains students to be prepared to recognize stress messages from those they meet, and gives them training to be responders,” Wright-Berryman said. Students are trained to validate what the person is saying and help the person make a connection with someone who can help.
The program is important because many young people will not tell an adult if they are struggling or thinking of harming themselves, she said. But they will tell other students.
“We have had kids come up and ask someone for help. We have tried to maintain an environment where it’s OK to ask for help,” Perkinson said. “In the last year, that part has increased even more.”
Every time a life is lost to death by suicide, there is more than one victim, Perkinson said.
At a recent conference about suicide prevention, Perkinson said he heard that each death by suicide has as many as seven victims who become traumatized by the death, and some say that number could be as high as 25 people.
“The community event is for everyone,” Wright-Berryman said of tonight’s suicide prevention awareness event, although organizers are focusing heavily on youth.
What: A Suicide Prevention Awareness event, held in conjunction with National Suicide Prevention Week.
When: 7 to 8:30 p.m. today
Where: Columbus North High School cafeteria
Learn about: What is being done in the community to prevent suicides and how you can be involved.
CALM, Counseling on Access to Lethal Means
When: Noon to 2 p.m. Oct. 26
Where: Kroot Auditorium, Columbus Regional Hospital
To register or for more information: Contact Karen Nissen at firstname.lastname@example.org
Presented by Columbus Regional Hospital and Healthy Communities
Mental Health First Aid training
When: Dec. 8
Presented by: Centerstone and Healthy Communities Mental Health and Substance Abuse Team
To register or for information: Contact Melissa Newland at Centerstone at email@example.com
Indiana Suicide Prevention
Task Force: in.gov/issp
The Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA) Division of Mental Health and Addiction (DMHA) facilitates the State of Indiana Suicide Prevention Task Force and is charged with developing a state suicide prevention plan. This task force is composed of representatives from 10 organizations, including membership from other state agencies such as the Indiana State Department of Health and the Indiana Department of Education, in addition to community organizations whose focus is on providing mental health services and suicide prevention efforts.
Survivors of Suicide
Survivors of Suicide Support Groups were established to help friends and family members who have survived the suicide of a loved one to cope with the grief and bewilderment of the issue. The support groups also advocate for education and prevention of suicide.
National Suicide Prevention Week is being observed through Sunday.
The following resources are available to anyone nationwide:
National Crisis Line: 800-273-8255 (800-273-TALK)
National Crisis Line (Spanish language): 888-628-9454
Teen Suicide Hotline: 800-784-2433 (800-SUICIDE)
Veterans Crisis Line: 800-273-8255
To learn more about suicide prevention, visit AFSP.org or on Facebook at facebook.com/AGSPnational/.
If someone you know has more than a couple of these warning signs for suicide in the near term, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or a mental health professional. Having more than one of these signs has been associated with greater risk of suicidal behavior. If youths have critical warning signs such as talking about killing themselves, dying or looking for ways to kill themselves, get immediate help.
Losses and other events — whether anticipated or actual — can lead to feelings of shame, humiliation or despair and might serve as triggering events for suicidal behavior. Triggering events include losses, such as the breakup of a relationship or a death; academic failures; trouble with authorities, such as school suspensions or legal difficulties; bullying; or health problems. This is especially true for youth already vulnerable because of low self-esteem or a mental disorder, such as depression. Help is available and should be arranged.
Previous suicide attempts
If your friend has attempted suicide in the past, he or she is at an increased risk for another attempt or suicide. Many suicide attempts go unrecognized, but if you are aware of a previous attempt, pay attention to warning signs. If your friend is expressing some thoughts about suicide, it’s OK to ask, “Have you ever had these thoughts before?” and if so, “Have you ever done anything about them?” This is especially important when conditions are similar to prior attempts.
Source: Indiana Psychological Association, indianapsychology.org
Most suicidal individuals do not want to die, they just want to end the pain, according to the Indiana Psychological Association. Suicidal crises tend to be brief, so early detection of suicidal behaviors can save lives. Here are some warning signs that someone might be contemplating harming themselves:
Suicidal plan: This includes threatening to hurt or kill oneself, talking or writing about it or looking for ways to do it, such as seeking firearms.
Hopelessness: Feelings of hopelessness about the future are more predictive of suicide than feelings of sadness or depression.
Recklessness: Engaging in risky activities, seemingly without thinking.
Withdrawal: Withdrawing from family, friends and society.
Increased alcohol or drug use: Individuals who abuse alcohol or drugs are at a much higher risk for suicide.
Changes in sleep patterns: Being unable to sleep or sleeping all the time
Access to guns: Those with access to guns are more likely to complete suicide.