December 14, 2011 - By Joe St. Henry
A standing-room only crowd of 500-plus people packed the St. Joseph Catholic School gymnasium on Monday night to participate in the community forum on suicide prevention, hosted by Lake Orion Community Schools, Oakland County and Common Ground.
The meeting featured a variety of experts on the subjects of suicide, substance abuse and mental health, many of whom shared their personal stories of being impacted by suicide and/or working with people of all ages who exhibit at-risk behaviors and the options to help them.
To a person, each of the speakers talked about the importance of young adults, in particular, having a support network of peers, family and friends to talk about their feelings and challenges while growing up, starting in middle school.
"Young people must have human connectiveness and a strong social network to be part of," said Dr. Dessa Stone, a local clinical psychologist and Lake Orion resident. "When this stops, bad things happen."
She added that feeling loved, valued, safe and trusted are critical to the mental health of teenagers and this nurturing starts at home.
High school counselor Michele Novak agreed, asking adults in the audience if they know the state of their children's mental health today?
"Do you know what is going on in their lives?" she asked. "Do you know what is going on inside their heads. Why do we all not know these things about our kids?"
All of the speakers agreed, however, that one of the most effective tools in the fight to preventing suicide among young people is peer-to-peer communication. This is something Lake Orion High School is promoting though various classroom exercises and programs involving students of all ages, Novak said.
"Our youth need to stand up and make positive decisions and support each other," the Lake Orion counselor insisted, bewildered by how many suicide-related notes are posted on Facebook and viewed by hundreds, if not thousands, of young people. Only occasionally does somebody step up to alert an adult, with others being afraid to "snitch", she added.
"The challenge is how do we get people (of all ages) to help each other," Novak said.
Dr. Stone said it is time society in general eliminates the stigma attached to mental illnesses that contribute to suicide. "Our brains operate with chemicals and they are just as sensitive to imbalances as the body's other organs. They can be fixed, but we just need to know before it's too late."
The doctor explained among suicide victims there is typically an underlying psychiatric illness, such as a mood, anxiety or substance abuse disorder, that is exacerbated by a stress event that triggers feelings of helplessness, anger/agitation or anxiety/dread.
Ensuring factors that lead to suicide include a lack of a support network, isolation, intoxication and access to a method to commit the act, she said.
Survival factors include a strong support group, extracurricular activities, membership in social/religious groups and being around people who care about the individual. Another key is keeping prescription drugs and guns hidden, she stressed.
Common Ground crisis counselor Amelia Lehto talks to at-risk youth on a regular basis and added if a person sees someone experiencing such potential suicide symptoms, "they are looking for an avenue or someone to talk to and get help."
Novak explained that today's proliferation of technology and social media is actually leading to the social isolation of kids and adults alike.
"People do not communicate face-to-face, instead relying on texting and Facebook too much," she said. "I know of kids and parents who may not speak to each other for two or three days at a time, aside from texts. This is not normal."
Speaking before the the adults and teenagers, the experts did say it was encouraging to see so many people concerned about this societal issue that impacts the entire country – not just those living here.
"This is not a Lake Orion problem, but one that impacts communities across the United States," said local resident Tony Rothchild, president and CEO of Common Ground. "I commend Lake Orion and all of you here tonight for addressing this issue."
George Miller, director of the Oakland County Department of Health and Human Services, also noted how pleased he was to see so many people in attendance. He outlined some of the life skills programs available to young people and others in the county to teach them how to cope with life's disappointments.
"I applaud you for your concern for your loved ones and this community," he said. "This shows the support needed to move forward."
Former Detroit Lions quarterback and depression patient Eric Hipple recounted his struggle with the death of his son from suicide in 2000. In hindsight, Hipple said his son showed all of the classic symptoms of an at-risk child.
He likened the Lake Orion community to the support network he had 11 years ago that saved his life as he wrestled with alcohol abuse following the tragedy.
At that point, Hipple realized there sometimes are no easy answers to suicide, but he could help in possibly preventing such tragedies by telling his story to community groups and U.S. military servicemen and women across the country.
"It's frustrating that as a country we can't make a dent in the number of suicides," he said. "But I don't believe we have to accept this and must ask what can this community do? You can't treat this as a school program or community problem – you must look at it as an opportunity."
Hipple's message, as well as those of the other speakers, rang true with Scott Jarvis, Lake Orion resident and father of three teenagers.
"I want to know what people in our community are thinking about this serious issue," he said prior to the start of the meeting. Afterwards, Jarvis was impressed. "I'm really glad I came tonight," he concluded. "These speakers inspired me and I learned a lot. I know there is hope for my community and young people everywhere."
Schools Superintendent Marion Ginopolis was pleased with the event and the community turnout to support it. She said the next step is to engage kids at the school in peer groups to discuss the issue of suicide prevention, starting early next year.