In an attempt to reduce the teen suicide rate and help adolescents with mental health problems, North Carolina is embracing some grassroots solutions.
By Rose Hoban
Last year, a friend of 15-year-old Rachel Sauls sent a text message to all of his friends telling them goodbye: he was planning to attempt suicide.
“It was really touching to me,” Sauls said. “I wanted to prevent that from ever happening again because it touched me and it touched a lot of my other friends.”
So Sauls did do something; she started a suicide-prevention group at her school, South Johnston High School in Four Oaks. Every month, 20 to 25 kids come and talk about problems ranging from divorcing parents to self-mutilation to depression and abuse.
“We talk about what we’ve gone through and things that we can overcome to make our lives and everybody else around us better,” Sauls said. “They say that it helps them and makes them feel relieved and a better person that they can share their story and help other people that may be going through the same thing.”
Sauls’ initiative is something that state mental health officials would like to see more of, and recently they’ve rolled out several initiatives to help young people with mental health issues.
Leading cause of death
in North Carolina, suicide is the second-leading cause of death of young people between the ages of 10 to 20; in 2012, 80 teenagers in North Carolina took their own lives.
So last fall, the Division of Public Health and the Injury and Violence Prevention branch in the Department of Health and Human Services convened a youth suicide advisory council that includes 10 teens from around the state.
“We’ve come together to discuss the concept of suicide and ways to help prevent it,” said 16-year-old Jumachi Orgi from Panther Creek High School in Cary. “It’s good that we can be here as advocates for our age group.”
Jane Ann Miller from the Injury and Violence Prevention Branch said her department had more than 150 applications from teens to be part of the council.
“We provide them with education regarding suicide prevention,” Miller said. “We also solicit their feedback regarding various projects that we’re doing and what they’re interested in doing.”
She said that eventually the teens’ input will become part of the state suicide-prevention plan.
Orgi and South Johnston High sophomore Leanna White said the adults on the council have been very receptive to what they have to say.
“They sit down with us and get our ideas and put them up and we’ll discuss them based on things that adults can do and younger people can do,” White said.
She said the group is consulting with the adults in the group about effective ways to reach their peers.
“I just want to really show people out there, all of the people our age, younger, older, that there is always someone that you can talk to and who either understands what you’ve been through or will try to understand what you’ve been through,” White said.
She said she wants people her age to know that “if you just sit and talk to them … they’ve been there at that age. But it’s been awhile, and they have to actually know what’s going on now.”
To that end, North Carolina is embracing some forms of “Mental Health First Aid.”
The evidence-based protocol teaches people how to recognize the signs and some symptoms of mental health problems. People trained in Mental Health First Aid learn how to persuade people to talk and refer them to professional help.
According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Mental Health First Aid has been found to be effective at improving a person’s knowledge about someone who may be experiencing an acute mental health crisis.
Last week, DHHS leaders gathered to celebrate the graduation of 32 people trained to teach others about Mental Health First Aid. The graduates came from youth groups, schools and the state’s mental health local management entities, among others.
“I work everyday with youth, youth with mental health and substance-abuse challenges, and I am very excited to be part of this new group to help destigmatize some of these issues that youth are facing today,” said Brad Biggerstaff, a program advisor for Youth M.O.V.E. NC, a youth leadership group. He was one of the 32 people who graduated.
“Adults often worry about how to approach teenagers, youth, young adults, and often confuse mental health disorders with typical teenage or young-adult activity,” Biggerstaff said. “This course provides practical skills that can help adults reach out to youth and help them at these times of need.”
Bryan Gibb from the National Council for Mental Health First Aid, U.S.A. said the protocol has about 4,000 instructors – people from every state – who teach the program. He said one of the most important aspects of mental health first aid is to reduce stigma surrounding mental health problems.
“We really believe that part of stigma is based on fear and misunderstanding and discrimination,” Gibb said, comparing the way people talk about mental illness today to the way people used to view cancer – with hushed tones.
“People learn that mental illness is like a physical illness … it has symptoms, it can be treated, it’s not necessarily a failing of moral character,” he said. “The more we understand that, the more likely we are be less afraid of individuals with mental illness.”
He pointed to statistics that show that one in five people in the U.S. will experience some form of mental illness annually and the lifetime prevalence hovers around 50 percent.
“It makes you part of the human race, not outside of it,” Gibb said.