March 07, 2012 - By Olivia Shumaker
On March 1 the students of Lake Orion High School gathered to hear a presentation by Dave Opalewski on suicide prevention.
Brought in by the PTO, Opalewski travels around the country speaking to schools on the subject and has published several books. This was the third in a series of presentations made by Opalewski in Lake Orion.
"I'm here because I care about you and because your community cares about you," Opalewski said. "You keep me enthused about the future."
The presentation began with a skit performed by members of the Thespian Society, in which a student told two friends that he was considering killing himself, swearing the two to secrecy. The students did nothing, and learned the next day that their friend had died by suicide.
From there, Opalewski had students reverse the skit, informing them that contrary to common belief, most adolescents who are seriously considering suicide tell around three people, often friends. When those three people get help and the person in crisis recovers, Opalewski said, those friendships strengthen, because they realize how much it took for their friends to speak up.
"You are the key people in prevention," Opalewski said. "Be a link. Get the person linked to help."
Standing near the front row instead of on the stage, Opalewski went through various myths about suicide, interspersed with statistics, studies and anecdotes from his years as a counselor, teacher, and responder. Among these myths is the concept that only poor students or those without money kill themselves and that nothing will change some one's mind once they have settled on suicide. Ten of the fourteen adolescent suicides that Opalewski knows of this year were honors students, and most adolescent suicides happen at home between 2 and 6 p.m., because the person wants to be found and stopped.
"Suicide isn't about death, it's about pain," Opalewski said.
He explained the statement by telling a story a salutatorian consoling the family of a suicide victim. She shared her experiences with the family, highlighting two facts: that she had a family whom she adored, and that she had made three serious attempts at suicide. She informed the family that it was not their fault—that when someone is considering suicide, the only thing they can comprehend is a pain inside that they feel they cannot escape any other way.
This in mind, Opalewski asked students, when trying to help a suicidal individual, to avoid making the person feel guilty, preaching to them, or saying that everything will be alright, because doing so would confirm their belief that others would be better off without them, or that no one is listening. Suicidal people, Opalewski explained, are not in a proper frame of mind to comprehend what they are being told. The time and place for lectures will come during recovery.
Opalewski went on to list various warning signs and ways to help a suicidal individual or their survivors—family and friends left behind by a suicide victim. Among the red flags is preoccupation with death, loss of interest in formerly beloved hobbies, and an abrupt "recovery."
"What do you think happened?" Opalewski asked the assembly. "They made the decision. Recovery from a long period of sadness is a process, not an event."
Near the close of the presentation, Opalewski provided students four questions to ask if they believe a friend is considering suicide: are you thinking of harming yourself, what's going on, where does it hurt—someone in acute crisis will have a physical manifestation of their internal pain—and lastly, what can we do to help. Opalewski concluded by opening the floor to questions.
Above all, Opalewski reminded students that there is always someone who cares about their wellbeing. Also, that it their responsibility, as someone who cares for an in-need friend, to get that friend to a responsible adult for help.
"Somebody loves you, probably a lot more than one person," Opalewski said. "I hope together our team can make a difference in your lives."