February 08, 2012 - "Nobody's worthless."
That was the message presented to Oxford Middle School eighth-graders by Dave Opalewski, a Central Michigan University professor and author of "Confronting Death in the School Family" during a special assembly Friday morning.
"Everyone has a purpose in life, and none of us are here by mistake," Opalewski said. "Everyone is here by divine appointment. There are no mistakes here. You are here because a greater power than us wanted you here."
"You are the most precious resource we have in this country...you guys are gifts to your parents," Opalewski added. "You are the most prized, precious possessions of your parents."
The assembly was held in the wake of the the recent suicide of OMS eighth-grader Shane Hrischuk.
Opalewski's message was also broadcasted live to sixth and seventh-grade students who were watching in their homerooms.
Opalewski said people who get to the point of suicide don't necessarily want to die, they just want to take away the pain they are suffering.
"When you get to the point when you want to take your life, you have so much pain in here (heart), all you can focus on is that intense pain," he quoted a valedictorian of a high school who made three suicide attempts.
"That pain inside them is so great, they don't even think about who they are going to hurt," he said.
Suicides are usually a result of substance abuse, a break-up in a family, feelings of insecurity, broken love affairs or economic conditions, Opalewski said.
Opalewski shared with students that suicide was the fastest growing killer of today's adolescents. He said in the last ten years, suicide has increased 124 percent at the middle school level, with an average of 63 suicides a day.
In a typical American classroom of 24 students, two boys and one girl made at least one suicide attempt in the last year.
"At this point today, we have 6,300 people your age making an attempt everyday, and we need it to stop," he told students.
"Suicide is becoming an epidemic in this country...it's just growing too fast and we need to stop it," he added.
Opalewski said talking about suicide was the number one way to stop it from happening again.
"I am so impressed by your school, the fact that people here care," he said. "I've been in several communities where this has been covered up...your school stepped up to the plate right away and you can feel very proud of your school, very proud of your community."
Opalewski noted he visited a school district where 10 suicides occurred at a high school before any type of action was taken.
"You are looking at a caring community. You are blessed to be living in this community," he said.
Students learned they were the first line of defense when it comes to preventing suicides.
"If we are ever going to make a difference, if we are ever going to help, you are the key players in helping us prevent this," Opalewski said. "We can't do it without you."
He said the best way students can help each other is by not calling them "stupid" or tease them about their weight, sexual identity, etc.
"Our words can hurt more than we think they do, and they can hurt far more than we intend them to," Opalewski said.
He also advised students to never swear to secrecy.
"You never, ever, ever keep anything like this a secret. Whenever anybody says they are going to harm themselves or harm any body else, we never keep that a secret," he said.
"That's a promise (that) if you keep it, you will always regret it," he added.
Opalewski said he worked on 52 cases of students attempting suicide during his eight years of being an at-risk counselor. In most cases, it was a friend who brought them forward.
He said a suicidal subject would most likely go to their friends first before going to an adult.
"Research shows they will tell three people before they kill themselves...those people are usually their friends," he said. "That is why you are so important."
He said of the 52 cases he worked, only one completed a suicide.
"That is one too many," he said.
He said he never felt as much pressure dealing with an attempted suicide as when a girl he was counseling called him while she was in the middle of asphyxiating herself in her parent's garage.
"I was able convince her to shut the car off and get out of the garage," he said. "I kept her on the phone...my wife got on her cell phone and called emergency medical services. She was really serious about killing herself...a year ago I got a postcard from her. She is graduating as an LPN, a two-year program at Delta College; she is getting married and she is very happy."
Opalewski also spoke on cutting, telling them if an individual cuts them across the arm, they should seek help.
However, if the cuts go up and down the arm, they should not be left alone and a responsible adult should be told immediately.
Opalewski told students signs of someone contemplating suicide were talking or joking about suicide; talking about reuniting with a loved one; feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness; preoccupation with death; being suddenly happy or calm after dealing with an emotional issue; loss of interest in things and self-destructive behavior.
He also shared with students four questions that could possibly save a life - are you thinking you are going to harm yourself? What is happening in your life that has you feeling this way? Where are you experiencing pain in your body? What can we do to help?
Once he was finished speaking, he went around to different classrooms to visit with students.
Andrew Moser is a staff writer for the Oxford Leader.