A group of parents gathered at Yorkville Middle School last Thursday evening for an important conversation, as one school district official put it.
The school hosted a program on youth suicide and depression presented by Northbrook-based Elyssa’s Mission. The organization was founded in 2006 by the uncle and mother of Elyssa Meyers, a New Trier sophomore who took her own life after suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in 2004.
The program was especially important because of the loss of a Yorkville Middle School student to suicide last October, organization officials said.
Elyssa’s Mission states on its website that it provides “hands-on support to area public and private schools in order to educate students, staff and parents on how to recognize and assist those teens most at-risk” of suicide.
The organization states that it has helped educate more than 100,000 students since it was founded, and conducts prevention programs in 120 Illinois middle schools and high schools.
Katie Baker, program director with Elyssa’s Mission, said the organization uses the S.O.S. or “Signs of Suicide” national program when they teach suicide prevention. She said the organization did not create the program, but that it helps schools implement the program.
Baker said the program is brought to the schools free of charge, and that they will be bringing the program to eighth-grade classrooms at Yorkville Middle School later this spring.
Before the presentation began, Dr. Hassan von Schlegell, the district’s director of student services, said having a discussion about suicide and depression was important.
“There is probably no conversation more important than tonight’s conversation,” von Schlegell said. “So thank you for recognizing that it is an important discussion for us as a school district and as a community.”
Melissa Molitor, a program director with the organization and a close childhood friend of Elyssa Meyers, thanked the parents for attending Thursday’s presentation.
“We want to acknowledge that this community has recently experienced a tragic loss,” she said. “There have been other losses in this district over the years, and that’s not unlike other schools across the country. Tonight, your presence, being here, is a critical step towards prevention, and that is to become educated on the warning signs, the risk factors for depression and suicide, and learning how to talk to your child about this often taboo topic.”
Molitor said the team at Elyssa’s Mission has been working with the school for the past two months, facilitating grief groups for students affected by the loss in October.
“We were also able to train other school clinical staff to be able to facilitate other groups to additional students who needed that support,” she said. “Students were chosen for those groups based on information from the crisis response team that came to the school after the loss as well as school staff. Each student was interviewed individually and consent from parents was needed in order to be in the groups. And it has been great to see their growth from the beginning. They’re a bunch of great kids in this district and those groups specifically that we’ve gotten to know. It’s been a joy getting to know them.”
Molitor said she was a very close friend of Elyssa’s growing up. She said the girl came from a loving home and a loving family, but “faced challenges.” Molitor said Elyssa was sexually assaulted in the fifth grade, and was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
“In about seventh grade she started talking to me about these thoughts of depression and suicide,” Molitor said. “I remember specifically one day in seventh grade, we were sitting in social studies class before it started, and she started showing me cuts on her wrists, and she asked me if I would attend her funeral if she killed herself. I remember sitting there thinking, ‘What is going on? What kind of question is that? If I say yes, does that mean I’m supporting her in this decision? If I say no, am I a really bad friend? So I kind of sat there and said ‘I can’t answer that.’”
Elyssa was later bullied by senior girls who did not like the fact she was dating senior boys as a sophomore, Molitor said.
“She was the target of some harassment and was bullied at times, and that was very hurtful for Elyssa,” she said.
Molitor said Elyssa also “did a great job of wearing a mask.”
“A lot of times she was laughing and joking and the life of the party, but underneath all those layers she was struggling every day,” Molitor said.
Katie Baker, a program director with Elyssa’s Mission, said if a teen or preteen is struggling, typically their friends will know before their parents or other adults.
“We have to educate the students,” she said. “What we know about adolescents is when they’re struggling, probably the first person that’s actually going to know about it is a peer.”
Baker said suicide is the second leading cause of death for 10- to 34-year-olds. There are 4,600 youth lost each year to suicide, Baker said. However, she said many deaths by accident are actually deaths by suicide, so the numbers are underreported.
Baker said four out of five people give “very clear warning signs” prior to killing themselves, and they are mostly given to friends and family.
The signs include a marked personality change, a loss in their ability to concentrate and a rapid drop in grades, and having thoughts of suicide, along with social isolation, increased anger and irritability.
Baker said depressive disorders, alcohol and substance abuse, and previous suicide attempts are the top three risk factors for suicide.
She said access to lethal means, including having firearms in the home, is one of the risk factors for suicide. She said the use of firearms is the most common and most lethal way to commit suicide.
“Having a firearm in the home increases the risk of someone dying by suicide in that home, even if no one has a diagnosable mental disorder,” Baker said. “I’m always so happy to have an audience of parents, because I can’t tell you enough, if you are concerned about your child, if they are in a current mental health crises, if they have a history of mental health crises, I ask you to remove the firearm from your home. If that is not an option for you, I ask you to temporarily remove it from the home until the crisis can pass. Those are the first two best options. There are some people that still will not do that, and if that’s the case, please have your ammunition separate from your firearm so it’s an unloaded firearm and both are kept in separate locked compartments that kids can’t get into.”
Baker said when she trains school staff she tells them to have a conversation with parents about firearms in the home.
Risk factors of suicide include negative life experiences – bullying, death of a loved one, trauma, physical or sexual abuse, sexual assault; family stressors – such as divorce, financial difficulties, or a sick family member; stigma – if parents are denying treatment because they cannot admit that their child has a problem.
Another risk factor is lack of acceptance from family and peers, particularly for those students who are LGBTQ-plus, Baker said. That acronym means lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer and questioning, she said, and the plus “is any other title that someone would use to identify by.”
LGBTQ-plus youth are “four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers that identify as straight,” Baker said.
“When a youth who identifies as LGBTQ-plus comes from a rejecting environment – family, friends, etc. – they are eight times more likely to attempt suicide than their LGBTQ-plus peers who come from an accepting environment,” she said. “So that accepting environment is a huge protective factor.”
Baker said such rejection causes mental health issues in youth.
“What we know is that when parents alienate their child because they don’t agree with their sexual orientation or they don’t agree with the gender that the child wants to be if it’s not the gender assigned at birth, it causes extreme and dramatic mental health issues,” she said. “My action to you is, if this is you, you’re not alone. If you’re not agreeing with this and this has impacted your relationship with your child, you’re not alone. But please get some help. Get some counseling. Join a parent group for those who identify as LGBTQ and get some support.”
Those who want more information on the program can visit elyssasmission.org.