Casting a Lifeline to Prevent Teen Suicide

September 1, 2016
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Wendy DePedro, executive director of Mental Health Association of Monmouth County, is helping to implement the Lifelines program in schools to help prevent suicide in youth. -J. Alvarez

Wendy DePedro, executive director of Mental Health Association of Monmouth County, is helping to implement the Lifelines program in schools to help prevent suicide in youth.
-J. Alvarez


Sept. 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day

By Judy O’Gorman Alvarez

Every parent’s nightmare: a child’s suicide.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2011 suicide was the third leading cause of death for New Jersey youth age 10 to 24, and the second leading cause of death for youth age 10 to 24 nationally. Sadly, the Two River community is not alone in its spate of recent suicides, but the results are devastating nevertheless.

Now, the Mental Health Association of Monmouth County (MHAMC) and Prevention First are joining forces to help communities – beginning with schools – combat the scourge. Lifelines, a suicide awareness and responsiveness program for teens and developed for use in schools, is a three-part comprehensive program for youth suicide awareness and prevention.

“We believe that by working within communities to build resiliency and collaboration with schools, families and faith-based organizations, we can make an impact on reaching our youth,” said Wendy DePedro, executive director, Mental Health Association of Monmouth County. “We all need to partner and work together to stem these tragic losses.”

The “whole-school program” educates administrators, faculty and staff, as well as parents and students, on the facts about suicide and their roles in suicide prevention, intervention and postvention.

The program has been utilized in a handful of communities in New Jersey, but the Mental Health Association of Monmouth County in coordination with Prevention First are working to introduce Lifelines to school districts in the Two River communities that have recently been impacted by suicide and traumatic loss.

One of the goals is to talk to youth about suicide and tragic loss, according to DePedro. “And start to put a prevention program in place so we’re not always ‘reacting’ within communities. We’re building resiliency.”

The three-pronged program – early identification, early prevention and postvention after the community has lost someone to suicide ­– targets teens, parents and the community.

“We want to be able to identify those at risk and provide a preventable toolkit to help them reduce incidences, “ said De Pedro, and provide resources after a community has lost someone to suicide. “And we want to end the stigma of suicide.”

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Scott Fritz lost his daughter Stephanie to suicide in 2003 and has been working with schools and communities to prevent suicide for more than 11 years. He teamed up with Maureen Underwood, a licensed clinical social worker and a nationally recognized expert on youth suicide prevention, to develop Lifelines: A Suicide Prevention Program. They have been keynote speakers at conferences on suicide prevention throughout the country.

Now, they have launched the Suicide Prevention Resource Fund (SRF), started with donations that totaled over $100,000, to bring Lifelines to train school personnel in Monmouth, Ocean, and Union counties for free. Training begins as early as this month.

A few years ago, the Lifelines program was implemented in Manasquan when the community was in desperate need of healing after a wave of suicides beginning in 2008.

Susan Tellone was a school nurse in Manasquan and acted as a crisis coordinator at the time.

Lifelines “is really a resource,” Tellone said. Not only does it talk bout prevention, Tellone said, it instructs on “how to get kids to recognize signs and symptoms of classmates who may have suicidal tendencies.”

It’s important, she said, for students ­to understand when a friend is in trouble and where to go and what to do. “And it helps teachers in the same way when a student is in trouble.

“We don’t expect them to be mental health professionals,” Tellone stressed, “just be able to refer to someone who can handle it.”

Convincing students to be alert to signs of suicidal thoughts in friends was an essential part of the campaign. “ ‘Friends helping friends’ gave us an avenue in having the student report what they were seeing – and often times they know more than we do,” said Tellone.

“What a school counselor sees (in a student) at 10 a.m. is not what a friend sees at 10 p.m.,” she said. A friend may see the crying, the sadness, desperation, suicidal comments, especially if alcohol or drugs is involved.

A third piece of Lifelines is postvention. “It’s how to respond to suicide, or any traumatic death in the schools afterwards so you don’t retraumatize the situation,” she said. Tellone said issues such as “glamorization of death by suicide or posting pictures of newspaper articles and photos could retraumatize” situations.

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Sometimes it was meant only to remember the students, she said, but sometimes it caused unhealthy distractions and even more trauma.

They counseled students to be sensitive to memorials and wearing shirts sporting pictures of the friend they lost. “It’s a fine line between honoring and glorifying.”

Instead, they spread the message to honor their friends in more productive ways. Involving students in projects such as Habitat for Humanity and other community-building activities was beneficial. “Getting involved and doing things that make them feel good about themselves,” Tellone said.

“Schools need to become proactive and not wait for tragedy because it’s much easier to work within a school that’s trained effectively and not wait until in trauma to respond,” Tellone said.

“The fact that we’re talking about this topic is very important, because this is something years ago was not discussed,” said Mary Pat Angelini, CEO of Preferred Behavioral Health, which is partnering with MHA to bring Lifelines to area schools. “It’s very important that schools know there are places they can turn to for resources and for help.”

Angelini also points out that it is important to discuss the topic of suicide in an age-appropriate way with young people. “So many times they hear things through the internet or social media,” she said. “For them to hear evidence-based information is really very important.”

Angelini said she’d like to see Lifelines in every school – private and public. “This has been a very collaborative effort,” she said. “It’s a great example of synergy between private and public dollars. And hopefully we can reach more kids.”

Angelini hopes that the program will have a trickle effect and young people will come to their families and start discussions.

Eventually the program will provide training to the community including first responders, police, community organizations and more.

“Any kind of effective prevention effort has to be a community effort,” she said. “Suicide affects the entire community.”





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