January 25, 2012 - By Joe St. Henry
It is time we listen to the kids.
In fact, if we don't, the Lake Orion community may continue to experience more than its share of heartache as at-risk youth take their lives.
That message was clearly expressed by adults and students alike at the Jan. 17 meeting hosted Marion Ginopolis, the superintentent of Lake Orion Community Schools.
The gathering, prompted by numerous inquires after December's suicide forum at St. Joseph Catholic Church, featured a diverse group of people who want to do something.
They included high school and middle school teachers, counselors and administrators; school board members; church representatives; the North Oakland Community Coalition; Common Ground and Oakland County Health Department; plus a handful of parents and students.
"I thought the best thing to do is sit down, come together and develop a unified approach to helping our young people," Ginopolis said in her opening remarks.
Lake Orion resident George Edwards lost his 22-year-old son last year to suicide. He could not agree more with the superindent's thinking.
"Everyone has to be on the same page," he said. "We can't have 25 people doing 25 different things. It should be a coordinated effort to really make changes in this community."
Edwards also stressed the need for a mindset change in Lake Orion and other communities that eliminates the stigma associated with mental illness, a common factor in many suicides, according to numerous experts.
If this can be accomplished, he and others thought young people may be more comfortable talking about their feelings.
"The more we can help persons be comfortable with reaching out for help, the more successful this community will be at addressing the problem," agreed Tony Rothchild, president and CEO of Common Ground. "Not every state of depression is curable, but getting someone to ask for help is a beginning point."
The students in attendance were vocal about both the importance of adults listening to them. Not only to better understand the factors that may lead to suicide, but for improving communication between kids, as well as adults.
"We need to teach the students at the high school, rather than the staff, how to talk and listen to each other," said sophomore Thomas Iselli. "Some kids are just not comfortable talking to teachers. They'd rather confide in their friends."
Senior Mckinzy Lawrence added, "If we could all just make a connection everyday with one person who we normally wouldn't, then maybe that could make a difference."
Ginopolis and Associate High School Principal Chris Bell said while youth suicide is a community tragedy, the school district recognizes its role in both proactively building awareness for ways to cope with such feelings and counseling at-risk students.
"We have a captive audience," the superintendent said.
While applauding the high school's counselors for being readily available to talk with at-risk youth, Lawrence said that school assemblies and other formal approaches to addressing the suicide issue do not work.
Senior Jarrett Gorman agreed and thought it would be idea if each high school student had a network of five people,possibly including adults, they could talk to when things get tough.
"Kids need to stop thinking it's weird having an adult listen to them," he added.
What's more, by sharing their feelings with adults, the community's youth will be better understood by their parents and others who may then be able to identify at-risk behavior before it is too late, said Melissa Miller, a parent and school board member.
"We live in a community with a lot of good parents who think they understand their kids," she said. "But they don't always pick up on want their kids are really thinking. We don't understand the world from their perspective. Many (parents) don't understand the environment our kids are growing up in."
"We need to get suicide off the table as a option (for young people)."
Oakview middle school teacher Carl Zoolkoski said the community should establish a more formal support network for its youth, including recent high school graduates between 18-25 years-old.
"I talk to kids every day, but kinda lose track of a lot of them once they leave middle school," he said. "I just want to make sure kids are still heard, not only in high school, but afterwards. They need to still truly feel connected and not out there alone in the world."
Mary Walsh, a counselor at Oakview, agreed, noting that once a student graduates the "safety net" is gone. She said it should be the community's mission to expand this net for Lake Orion's youth beyond the middle schools and high school, but wondered how it can be done.
The North Oakland Community Coalition (NOCC) took the first step by developing the framework of a suicide prevention action plan that was distributed at the meeting.
Director Julie Brenner said she was hoping participants at the meeting could help her flesh out the document over the next few weeks. She wants to expand it beyond simply hosting events and include additional activities to make it a "long-term, sustainable" plan to reach out to young people.
"This must be a collaborative effort, with no one group leading it by itself," Brenner said. "We need to take a community approach. I'm encouraged to see us come together to promote awareness of the situation and ways for our young people to get help."
The NOCC director reiterated that a number of high school students have already approached her organization, wanting a role in the plan's development and execution.
"We're focused on listening to what the kids have to say," she said.
Parent and high school PTO President Chris Barnett was another participant convinced that the key to success of any awareness program is youth involvement. Prior to the Jan. 17 meeting, he and Edwards spoke with students who expressed this interest.
"It's clear kids want to be part of the solution," Barnett said. "If we don't focus on want students are saying, then we may be wasting our time."
Ginopolis added that when she was superintendent in Oxford back in the 1990s, that community also had to deal with a rash of young people ending their lives.
"A key to addressing the situation was getting the young people involved, which really helped adults obtain a better understanding of what we needed to do."
Some initial advice for the superintendent came from junior Taylor Fasseel, who told the group that while it is important to reach out to kids who may be at risk, the community also needs to help those young people left behind trying to deal with the aftermath of a suicide.
"We're hurting too," she said.
Ginopolis said the group plans to meet again in a couple of weeks.