Woog’s World: Casting suicide from the shadows on a mission to save lives
Published 11:56 am, Friday, June 12, 2015
Thirteen years ago, Chris Hinds committed suicide. A senior at Weston High School, he was a bright, sensitive young man with great promise. He also had struggled for several years with depression.
It was a tragic event. Since then, his mother Holly has worked to transform the loss of her son into something positive to help others.
She speaks publicly about his death by suicide. She educates high school and college audiences about suicide prevention and mental health. She advocates for children, teenagers and young people who live with mental health challenges through organizations like the Connecticut Suicide Advisory Board ( www.preventsuicidect.org ) and the Southwest Regional Mental Health Board ( www.healthymindsct.org ).
Today, Hinds says, there is “a lot of good news about mental health.” There are more treatments, strategies and community support systems than ever before. However, she notes, “there is still much bias, ignorance and avoidance” around the topic of mental health.
Several months ago, Hinds read a blog post by Jay Boll. He’s the vice president of Laurel House — a Stamford non-profit that provides resources and opportunities for people living with mental illness to lead fulfilling, productive lives — and he described the checklist of items many parents talk about with their teens before their children leave for college.
Often, the subjects include drinking, drugs and sex. Too rarely, mental health is on the list.
Hinds says that parents should ask themselves, “How informed is your teen when it comes to dealing with a possible mental health program at college?” For example, “Does your teen know some of the most common warning signs of a mental health problem? Have you talked through a plan with your teen about what to do if he believes he many be experiencing a mental health crisis? Does your teen know what to do if one of her friends is acting depressed, or says she is thinking about killing herself?”
Hinds warns parents against thinking “that would never happen to my child, or any of my child’s friends.” She cites statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness: 75 percent of lifetime cases of mental health conditions begin by age 24. One in four people between the ages of 18 and 24 have a diagnosable mental health condition. More than 80 percent of college students felt overwhelmed by all they had to do in the past year. Forty-five percent have felt things were “hopeless.”
Hinds notes that suicide is the third leading cause of death among college students. In a recent Emory University study, one in 10 college students were found to have a “suicide plan.”
Boll offers some talking points for parents who want to begin a conversation about mental health with their teenagers. For example, “I know that starting college is exciting. But it can also cause anxiety and other stress-related symptoms.” “Anyone can develop a mental health problem. No one is immune.” “Mental health conditions are like other illnesses. They can be diagnosed — and treated.”
Hinds says that because the odds are strong that your child, or his or her friends or roommates, will experience a mental health issue during college, parents should develop a plan with their teenager. Adults should know what resources are available at his or her college — not only for mental health, but also “mental wellness.” Activities like meditation and yoga can help, even in stressful times.
The work that Hinds is doing is impressive. It takes courage, perseverance and enormous physical and emotional energy. Fortunately, she is not alone.
For example, I have been very impressed with the work of the Staples High School guidance department. Working in a high-powered school, in a community that demands a great deal of its youngsters, counselors have developed a program that acknowledges the many stresses teenagers feel, and created strategies to address them.
Slowly, young people are recognizing the importance of talking about mental health issues. Though Hinds knows there has long been a stigma surrounding the subject, that seems to be changing. This is purely anecdotal, but in my work with teenagers I have heard much more honest discussion about mental health than ever before. Many teens do know where to get help - or at least, how to ask for it. And - knock on wood - it has been many years since Staples High School has lost a student to suicide.
So while mental health problems are rampant, and show no signs of subsiding, the good news is: talking about the subject helps.
Let’s keep the conversation going.
(As part of her advocacy work, Holly Hinds is available to talk at any time. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org).