Northfield resident Joanne Meyers gets frustrated when she hears about high school students committing suicide. She worries there will be another death, or that there are still at-risk students in that community not getting the help they need.
It’s a personal issue for Meyers, whose daughter, Elyssa, committed suicide in 2004 as a sophomore at New Trier High School.
“These schools that had these suicides, some of them need to really step up to the plate and do more,” Meyers said.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents, and Meyers believes the best way to prevent deaths is to train other teens to look for the signs. That’s the goal behind Elyssa’s Mission, the not-for-profit organization Elyssa’s friends and family founded in 2006.
The group runs and funds programs at area schools, helping them to implement the SOS Signs of Suicide Program, which teaches students the signs that a classmate may be suicidal and how to get them the help they need (see the end of the story for examples).
“There’s such a big need for it,” Meyers said. “There were two suicides back to back in Lake Forest. There’ve been suicides at Loyola. I think schools are just realizing that it’s something kids and communities need to learn about so they can help each other.”
Group partners with Loyola Academy
Elyssa’s Mission’s latest program is a scholarship contest at Loyola Academy. Seniors who have completed the SOS program can submit essays by Friday incorporating the message for the chance to win $3,000 for college.
“The impact of the Signs of Suicide program at Loyola Academy has been very positive,” said guidance counselor Debra Larrea. “The SOS program has decreased the stigma about mental health issues, encouraging our students to share their concerns about themselves or their friends with a trusted adult.”
Loyola was chosen as the first school to receive scholarship funds because of its close relationship with Elyssa’s Mission. One of Elyssa’s close friends went to Loyola, and joined the organization’s board of directors when he graduated. Several other board members have children that go to the Wilmette school.
“We call them our partnering school,” Meyers said. “We developed close ties with their counseling program. We work closely with them to make sure our program is implemented. It screens students, then immediately identifies those teens at risk. Once they’ve been identified they can get them the help they need.”
Program gave student the courage to seek help
Larrea related the story of one Loyola student who revealed that she was depressed after going through the SOS program as a sophomore.
“I helped her share this with her mother, and she then engaged in individual therapy,” Larrea said. “This student went on to share her story in her junior year with other students in small group discussions, and with Loyola’s faculty and staff. As a result of hearing her story, faculty and staff were better able to identify and support students who are suffering from mental health issues, and more students were willing to talk to their counselors regarding concerns about themselves and their friends. Sometimes, these students are diagnosed with clinical depression, and other times, they are exhibiting normal adolescent mood changes.”
Stories like these let Meyers know that her work is having a lasting effect on high school students, who will face further challenges and suicide risks as they head to college.
“That’s another reason for the scholarship – to hear those stories of how the program has impacted the students,” she said. “I know the message is getting out.”
What are the Warning Signs?
According to the Elyssa's Mission website, these signs demand immediate attention.
- Talking about or writing about suicide or death
- Giving direct verbal cues, such as, “I wish I were dead” and “I’m going to end it all”
- Isolating himself/herself from family and friends
- Giving away prized possessions
- Expressing the belief that life is meaningless
- Exhibiting a sudden or unexplained improvement in mood after being depressed and withdrawn
- Neglecting his or her hygiene
- Dropping out of school or social, athletic, and/or community activities
Other warning signs include:
- Frequent tearfulness and/or crying
- Decreased interest in activities or inability to enjoy previously favorite activities
- Hopelessness, helplessness
- Persistent boredom or low energy
- Social isolation
- Increase or decrease in sleeping patterns
- Increase or decrease in eating patterns
- Low self-esteem/guilt
- Difficulty with relationships
- Increased irritability, anger or hostility
- Drug and alcohol use
- Obsessive risk-taking
- Marked personality change
- Absences in school and/or drop in school performance
What do you think is the best things teens can do to help prevent suicide among their classmates?