MVHS community members come together for discussion of suicide

  • LEAH WILLINGHAM/ Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Thursday, October 05, 2017

Around 1 in 5 Merrimack Valley High School students say they’ve seriously considered suicide.

That statistic, along with others shared at an after-school forum on suicide prevention, had a chilling effect on the high school auditorium Wednesday night.

The data were presented by members of the school’s guidance staff, who introduced an ongoing effort to introduce the SOS “Signs of Suicide” program into the high school’s curriculum.

SOS is a nationwide program that aims to provide tools to help young people identify the signs and symptoms of depression, suicide and self-injury in themselves and in peers. The Merrimack Valley chapter was funded in February by an Exeter nonprofit, the Connor’s Climb Foundation.

Statistics presented at the forum were compiled from national organizations and the most recent New Hampshire Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Seventy-two percent of Merrimack Valley High School students filled out the survey, educators said.

The call for education in schools on suicide has become especially pressing after the death of 2016 Merrimack Valley graduate, 19-year-old Jason Dickey, last month.

Jason’s parents, Paul and Martha Dickey, were both at the forum Wednesday.

Paul said the SOS training is a “great start” to making suicide awareness a more normalized part of the school curriculum. It’s a difficult task when mental health is so stigmatized, he said.

“It’s a silent thing no one’s talking about because people say, ‘Not in my family; everything’s great,’ ” he said. “We thought everything was great. We found out the hard way it wasn’t.”

NAMI New Hampshire Community Educator and Prevention Specialist Ann Duckless said a way to reduce the stigma is to make sure both parents and students are comfortable addressing the warning signs for suicide.

“If I had tingling in my left arm, nobody would say, ‘Ann, have a seat. Let’s wait for nausea, and sweating, and clamminess and vomiting. Then we’ll know you’re really having a heart attack,’ she said. “No – universally, people know what a heart attack looks like. But you don’t wait for other warning signs to come out.”

“Unfortunately, with suicide, people will see one thing, they’ll hear one thing, and then they’ll discount it, and when they do respond it might be too late,” she said.

Warning signs for suicide could be increased irritability, anger, substance abuse, loss of enjoyment in regular activities or reclusiveness, Duckless said. Calling attention to those signs when you see them can really make an impact, she said.

Another way to help young people who might be at risk is to make sure they have places they can turn to for help. Around 84 percent of Merrimack Valley students who filled out the Youth Risk Behavior Survey said they wouldn’t talk to their parents about negative emotions.

One parent said he speaks openly about his experience with mental illness as a way to teach his kids.

“I have two sons, and I try to tell them about my depression as a way to start off a conversation,” he said “I’ve found that what has not worked is, ‘Hey, how’re you doing? How was your day?’ I get ‘fine,’ or I get the classic, ‘I don’t know.’ ”

“I try to encourage them – when you wake up in the morning, the first thing you do is you say to yourself, ‘I’m getting out of bed, I’m facing another day like millions of other people on the planet, and I’m going to do what I need to do today.’ You deserve to pat yourself on the back just for that.’ ”

Merrimack Valley High School officials said they plan to introduce SOS training into an existing freshman wellness seminar starting in December.

Many parents in the room expressed a wish that the training not be limited to ninth-graders, but be incorporated into a curriculum that continues through all four years of a high schooler’s education.

Athletic Director Kevin O’Brien said school leaders are meeting weekly to discuss ways to improve the school’s approach to mental health. He said they are working to engage more community members in these discussions.

About 50 people attended Wednesday’s forum.

“I’m excited and proud of the people who are here today, but I’m disappointed that I see empty seats,” O’Brien said. “Now, I’m not going to say it’s the fault of the people who aren’t here, I’m going to say it’s our responsibility to get more people in these seats.”

Toward the end of the night, social studies teacher Jeff Neilsen spoke from the back of the room.

“Raise your hand if you or someone you care about has been affected by suicide,” he said.

Almost everyone in the room raised a hand.

As people began to clear the auditorium after the event’s close, Paul Dickey said the forum had given him hope.

“I’d love to see this whole room filled at some point,” he said. “It might take a whole year, it might take two, it might take three, but I think it can happen.”