March 14, 2012 - Every day in America, according the latest statistics, 63 adolescents die as a result of suicide. Across the nation, communities are coming together to discuss what most folks don't want to talk about: suicide.
Lake Orion is one of those communities.
On Feb. 27, for nearly two straight hours parents, students, teachers, clergy, law enforcement and others listened intently as guest speaker Dave Opalewski talked about suicide, kids and their parents at the Lake Orion High School Auditorium.
Opalewski has spent 39 years in education -- as a teacher in elementary, middle and high school, as a football coach, counselor and professor at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant.
His stated main objective was to tell everybody, to keep things in perspective as kids across the nation are stressed out.
"Are grades the most important thing? They are important, but are they the most important thing?" he asked the audience of about 300. "You know most of these adolescents who have died in Michigan since January first -- by the way, there's been 12 that I know -- ten of the 12 were honor students."
He says most students these days are stressed out, and the biggest two stressors are school and family. "And the kids are the most stressed out tend to be the top ten kids in the class. The quest for excellence is fine, it's wonderful -- if you can keep it in perspective. There are a lot of pressures on our kids today. Pressure to get good grades. Pressure to get the MMEs, and the ACTs, SATS and all those scores so they can get scholarships and get into college.
"You know, as a college professor I am here to tell you college isn't for everybody. We need carpenters, plumbers and we need service people . . . when did we get the idea that college is for every kid?
"That's more important to parents than the child. I think something is wrong there. I think we have to admit that. College is a good thing, but it is not for everybody. We have to be very careful about the pressure we put on our kids today."
He told parents in the audience not to live their lives through their children's.
"Why can't we let kids be kids? To let them be who they are," he said. "Beware of the pressure -- maybe not intentionally -- that we put on them."
Opalewski spoke to parents with stories and the aid of a power-point presentation projected onto a 30-foot screen behind him. One of the points he stressed is that kids want to their parents care and that suicide is not about death, it's about relieving pain.
"Its about ending pain. When a person gets to the point about wanting to end their lives, they have this tremendous pain inside of them, and all they can concentrate is on that pain," he said.
He told a story of a girl he knew, who had loving parents and sisters, who was an honor student and who had made three serious attempts on ending her life. Her words to parents of suicide completers was, "When you get to the point of suicide you can't think about whose live you're gonna' mess up. All you can do is concentrate on the pain."
He told parents not to make their children feel guilty about their emotions and angsts -- he asked them not to belittle their emotions with statements like, "you're just a teenager, you have your whole life in front of you," "you don't even know what love is," "there are plenty of fish in the sea," and "these are the best years of your life."
"Wow. Really? When you say things like that you don't give them hope. When you're talking about those things with children, don't say those things. You make them feel worse. You make them feel guilty for feeling awful.
"Depression is a medical condition, it is not a character flaw. We have the stereotype that depression is a character flaw, Continued from Page 2
no it is not. Experts tell us 99 percent of the people who die by suicide are either depressed at the time or mentally ill . . . both medical conditions. We have got to get rid of this stereotype."
Without singling anybody out to the audience, he told anybody who had survived a serious suicide attempt to forgive themselves. "You were in a tough spot. But you survived."
He also called the survivors of suicide -- those who have lost a loved one -- heroes. He told the audience, Lake Orion is a typical community. "There is nothing wrong with Lake Orion. Lake Orion is just being honest, that's all. I give you credit. We can take control of this. This is preventable. We need to talk about suicide. Talking about suicide does not make it happen."
He said the number one prevention method to suicide was talk about it.
"Lake Orion already has started that. I have read the school's plans and strategy. We can take control of this. We can't prevent everyone, I wish I could guarantee that, I can't. But we can take control of the situation."
Opalewski presented many lists on the causes, statistics, myths, what signs to watch, how to help and more.
In Michigan, he said, seventh grade girls are the number one group who attempt suicide, adding, however, that eighth grade boys are "number one on the list of completers."
The number one influence on our kids is the media, TV. "Back in my day the number one influence was the family. The number two influence was school. In 2010, the number one influence is the media, TV. And you know what they are watching, stuff like Jersey Shore and programs like that. You think that is healthy? I don't think so.
"The number two influence is their peers. And, who are they being influenced by -- the media. Number three influence is the school. Number four is the family. Wow. Tell me that doesn't have an effect on our kids. It certainly does."
He asked parents to talk with their kids. Listen to them. Spend quality time with them. Have dinner with them and don't scold at the dinner table.
"We've got to teach our kids that wealth is quality relationships with your loved ones and all the significant people in your life. Quality relationships. That is what wealth is."
To see Opalewski's 31-page power point presentation, please visit , www.lakeorion.k12.mi.us/lohs/PDFs/ParentSuicidePresentation_022712.pdf
We are also trying put an audio recording of Opalewski's presentation on The Lake Orion Review's website, www.LakeOrionReview.com
Don is Assistant Publisher for Sherman Publications, Inc. He has worked for the company since 1985. He has won numerous awards for column, editorial and feature writing as well as for photography. He has two, sons Shamus and Sean and resides in the area. To read archived copies of his columns, click on his name, just under his picture up top . . . He can be e-mailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org