There are a million places the thoughts in a teenager’s mind can go when faced with adversity, but there isn’t always a place for the teen to turn.
As part of a growing and expanding Yellow Ribbon program at schools throughout Montcalm County, students and staff are working hard to offer those struggling with thoughts of self harm or suicide a place to look to.
Founded in 1994, the Yellow Ribbon program is geared toward preventing teen suicide. Local school districts jumped on board in the last several years, building their own student-run programs.
Like the national program, local groups focus on taking preventative measures for those who have thoughts of suicide or self harm, whether the result of bullying or something else. And unfortunately, statistics show these issues students struggle with in Montcalm County.
Since 1996, Montcalm County has had a suicide and intentional self harm rate significantly higher than the state and national average. In 2009, the most recent data available from the Michigan Department of Community Health, Montcalm County saw a rate of 15 people per every 100,000 commit an act of self harm, including suicide. That dwarfs the statewide rate of 11.1 in the same year.
“There was a time Montcalm County had the highest teen suicide rate in the state of Michigan,” said Penny Dora, executive assistant with the Montcalm Area Intermediate School District and countywide coordinator for the Yellow Ribbon program. “That is the reason we wanted to come up with a program that brings awareness and shows people there is help out there.”
So in 2006, Central Montcalm founded the first local Yellow Ribbon club, led and run by students. Since then, each of the other seven districts in the county have established groups, some at the high school level, some in the middle school and in some cases both.
What the program does
“The main goal is to educate and bring attention to the signs of suicidal thoughts to students and often the community,” said Jennifer Geiger, Yellow Ribbon coordinator at Carson City-Crystal Area Schools. “That’s the main goal, is talking about it so they feel comfortable telling and sharing their story or going up to someone else who may be depressed and listen.”
The groups organize informational sessions, events and implement programs to help educate students on not only what to look for in friends and family members who may be having issues, but also on how to handle those situations and find them help. Some of those signs include depression, grieving, pessimism, a family history, giving away possessions or expressing a wish to die.
“It’s really about knowing the person and noticing a drastic change. And it doesn’t even have to be drastic, because every person is different,” Geiger said. “The sign you really want to look for is a change in personality.”
Yellow Ribbon representatives from each of the county’s school districts meet once a year to undergo training on warning signs of those with potential suicidal thoughts and meet even weekly within their own districts to come up with projects to educate students.
But it isn’t just identifying it, it’s actually finding that person help. The Yellow Ribbon program works along with school counselors, the Montcalm Center for Behavioral Health and even a national hotline to direct people to the best possible resources, whether that be therapy, coping strategies or even just a friend’s shoulder cry on.
Why it’s important
Alicia Tatum, a Central Montcalm senior and president of the school’s Yellow Ribbon program, lost a relative to suicide. She said it’s hard for a teenager to sort through the different feelings involved with traumatic experiences, whether a death in the family, a feeling of helplessness due to economic situation or even bullying.
While the Yellow Ribbon program does offer encouraging slogans on signs and banners that grace school walls, it aims at much more than that.
“We want to educate and have actual preventative measures instead of just saying, ‘smile and be happy,’” Tatum said. “It’s important to have positive messages throughout the day, but at the same time mental illness is not so superficial it can be solved by someone smiling at you and saying everything will be alright.”
In an effort to do that, Tatum is implementing what she calls a “safe place” at the high school, a place students can go when attempting to cope with issues. The idea, Tatum said, is to provide a private setting in which students can learn of and have access to resources that can help them through troubling times.
“The safe place is a place to allow students to practice those coping skills,” she said, noting that social media adds an extra layer. “Everything is so public it’s hard to find a place to identify your feelings and cope with them without the fear of someone judging you for, heaven forbid, feeling something.
“I wanted a space where people can go when they have harmful thoughts or feelings, but I want them to have the tools to combat those and be able to take care of themselves,” she said.
That’s the goal of each of the program’s chapters across the county.
“We’re not psychologists, we’re not going to make that call, but if we even suspect it we will put them in touch with people who can intervene,” said Deb Larsen, program coordinator at Greenville High School. “Students and even staff have a person to lean on when needed. We’ve provided an outline and a line of communication.
“They just need to know someone cares,” she said.
Officials across the board said they’ve seen a huge difference made in students who are experience hard times. Several noted specific cases in which students thanked coordinators and even Yellow Ribbon members for intervening and caring about their situation.
But the most important thing, Tatum said, is students are more comfortable in talking about their issues with others.
“I personally have gotten a lot more questions and I think that is the first step,” she said.
The dialogue has started and with passionate students at the helm, the program continues to grow and succeed.
“I think spreading the word that we’re all going to rally together really helps,” Dora said.
And the message is clear.
“Today may seem horrible,” Geiger said, “but there is always a tomorrow.”