Reeling from the deaths of two students, a small group gathered Dec. 14 to learn about suicide — a problem that’s often only addressed at home, behind closed doors.
The good news, according to Liz Wolanski of the Lorain County Board of Mental Health, is that suicide can sometimes be prevented if depression and other problems are isolated and treated.
“Don’t be afraid to ask someone about their thoughts if they’re showing signs of depression or suicidal tendencies,” said Wolanski. “Usually, people feel a sense of relief when they’re asked about it. You’ve shown yourself to be someone who will listen to their story, listen to the pain, and kind of help with their recovery.”
In a presentation at the LCCC Wellington Center, a trio from the nonprofit talked about how mental health is interpreted, and often misinterpreted, in real scenarios.
Suicide prevention training sessions will be held this January at Wellington High School. They’ll include student questionnaires and private follow-ups if needed.
Applewood Centers, an Elyria-based counseling service contracted by the district, will conduct classroom sessions on dealing with stress for ninth- and 10th-graders and group discussions for all students in January.
Over the past two years, mental health and bullying in the Wellington Schools have come under increased scrutiny after two Wellington High School students, Josh Byers and Tyson McKinley, took their own lives.
“Some of the small prevention groups we do help kids with emotional regulation, or developing more of a sense of empathy,” said Wolanski. “We teach them coping skills and communication skills. Some of those coping skills are hard because we all know what it feels like when someone is picking on you.”
“The brain develops until we’re in our mid-20s,” she said. “There’s definitely a difference between a 17-year-old and a 27-year-old in terms of how their brain responds. Teaching coping skills in a setting where we can practice and rehearse is very important.”
Suicide is the 11th largest killer of Americans — but the third largest among ages 10-24, with up to a quarter of adolescents and 15 percent of adults considering suicide at various points of their lives.
In a survey last school year of Lorain County high school students, 26 percent said they’ve felt “sad and hopeless” with 15 percent having considered suicide.
Roughly 89 people take their own lives in the U.S. every day, an average of 32,637 each year.
However, Wolanski said that data may not tell the whole story. Experts estimate that many suicides are mistakenly labeled as accidents by medical examiners.
Women attempt suicide four times as often as men but men complete the process and take their own lives four times as much as women, a slide presentation citing a study by the U.S. surgeon general showed.
The risk of suicide for women rises until midlife and then decreases while men see the risk continue to rise throughout their lives.
A family history of suicide can increase a person’s risk by six times with access to firearms and “self-medicating” with prescription drugs also playing roles.
Wellington resident Rick Hatton asked what can be done if a loved one becomes angry or combative when confronted about their suicidal tendencies.
“We’re not asking people to put all the responsibility on themselves when intervening,” said Wolanski. “There are lots of resources available within our county and withing the community. Obviously, one of the things you want to do is respect confidentiality when we can. But if someone is seriously considering suicide and has a plan, there are people who you’re going to have to tell. That can be done while still respecting someone’s privacy.”
She said the Nord Center’s 24-hour crisis line is always a call away at 800-888-6161 and the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services’ text line can be reached by sending “4HOPE” or “HELLO” to 741741.
A 20-year study points toward internal changes in the brain’s structure and damage to brain cells in the hippocampus, amygdala, and limbic systems as direct physiological factors in depression and suicide, slides showed.
There are popular misconceptions about depression, suicide, and mental illness the board aims to tackle. These are medical conditions, not an inability to cope with life, a moral failing, or a “coward’s way out.”
“When it comes to bullying, a lot of students just don’t understand the damage that’s done, even when they’re a bystander,” said mental health board director Kathleen Kern. “Their brains aren’t developed in a lot of ways in terms of empathy and impulsiveness. Our best bet is to give them the most helpful information, then reinforce it and reinforce it in hopes that it sticks.”
“Wellington has been very progressive in trying to address this issue,” she said. “Wellington pulled us in here to try and be of assistance. We’re fighting a lot of history of stigmas and the idea that mental health means you’re either well or ill. It strikes me that no one perceives themselves as physically 100 percent well all the time. They’ll openly admit they have a cold or the flu but they don’t make that link that your brain is the same way. There’s going to be days where you’re emotionally doing very well and others you’re not doing well at all.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.
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