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Empowered to help

By Robert Galbreath

October 16, 2020 © Pinedale Roundup, re-printed with permission

Pinedale High School juniors wear tropical print shirts and stand in front of a classroom
PHS juniors Alena Mika, left, and Katie LaBuda, right, took time during Homecoming to talk about suicide awareness in school.

PINEDALE – In 2018, Wyoming had the second highest suicide rate at 25.4 deaths by suicide per 100,000 people, according to a study published by the American Association of Suicidology. The Wyoming Department of Health reports that this rate is significantly higher than the national average of 14 per 100,000.

The stigma that surrounds mental health and suicide can be a powerful deterrent to seeking help.

“In Wyoming, everyone’s taught to just rub some dirt on (mental health) and not go for help,” said Pinedale High School junior Katie LaBuda. “I feel like that’s not how it should be. Everyone should be able to get help and talk about it openly.”

PHS health and P.E. teacher Jen Wilkinson included suicide awareness in her curriculum to break down taboos around suicide and educate her students on ways they can help.

“Suicide is such an important topic to cover,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what age you are – it’s a hard topic. The more we expose kids, the more we get away from an attitude of, ‘let’s not talk about it,’ to, ‘yes, let’s talk about it.’”

Wilkinson took suicide awareness a step further when she introduced a program called QPR to her students. QPR, short for “question, persuade and refer,” and provides people with the skills to help a person that is suicidal until professional help arrives.

QPR is similar to CPR, another measure ordinary people can use to save a life before first responders arrive. Inspired by the success of CPR, mental health providers in Washington, led by Dr. Paul Quinnett, developed QPR as a response to suicide.

Wilkinson is a “certified gatekeeper,” trained to teach the process to community members, including her students. The course empowers students to learn the signs of suicide and take action to help their peers in an emergency.

Wilkinson teaches the course to all sophomores. Two students, LaBuda and junior Alena Mika, were willing to talk about their experiences with QPR.

“I feel like I know a lot of people that are so effected by mental health and are going through things,” said Mika. “I think it’s so important that everyone understands what others are going through and be able to help them.”

Awareness – a learning curve

Before taking Wilkinson’s QPR course, LaBuda and Mika said their knowledge of suicide was limited.

“Learning about suicide in general and all the statistics made it more personal and more real,” said Mika.

“Now, I feel like I know what outlets to go to if I can’t handle the situation – like who can help (a suicidal person) professionally,” said LaBuda.

In addition to learning about suicide resources, the QPR course teaches students the warning signs for suicide and how to broach the topic. This is QPR’s “question” portion.

“You question them first, and you want an exact statement, like, ‘Are you going to kill yourself?’ to get it out there,” Mika said.

“You directly ask them if they’re going to kill themselves to get it out there in the open so you can start the conversation,” said LaBuda.

This approach might seem blunt, but Wilkinson explained that directness is more likely to produce a “yes” response.

“If you go around the question, more people are likely to say ‘no’ or hide it,” Wilkinson added.

Students learned how to handle this difficult conversation by acting out scenarios in the classroom. LaBuda and Mika said that the scenarios were awkward at first. But reality set in quickly as they learned more.

A TED Talk video produced by a suicide survivor hit home for Mika. Learning about suicide rates and how many people feel suicidal at some point also made an impact.

“Those were real people – the TED Talk was a real story,” said Mika. “The statistics were 100-percent real. We realized a portion of students in our class could be suicidal.” “I remember when Mrs. Wilkinson said something about an empty desk next to you – to look around and imagine an empty desk where a person (that died by suicide) used to sit,” said LaBuda. “That one really hit me.”

Students learned how to identify someone that may be suicidal, what LaBuda and Mika called “hint words.” Signs can include giving possessions up, LaBuda explained, or “major mood changes.”

Other signs included expressions like “I don’t want to do this anymore,” or “I don’t want to be here anymore,” said Mika.

People feeling suicidal may not always appear depressed. LaBuda stated that risking an awkward conversation was worth it in situations where someone may be suicidal.

“I feel like it’s better to make sure to ask and get it out in the open because you wouldn’t want to hold that back and regret it later,” LaBuda explained.

Mika and LaBuda agreed that the course encouraged them to “check in” on friends and peers more. This did not necessarily mean asking a classmate if they felt suicidal, but simply becoming more aware of how people are feeling.

“You never really know what someone is going through, whether it’s something online, with their family or school,” said Mika. “I feel like if I were in that situation and someone came up and asked, ‘How are you?’ it would be so nice to hear that – that someone understood.”

Taking action

QPR provides the tools to take a person

from the question to a place where they can get help. This is the “persuade” and “refer” portion of the process.

The key is providing the person with a “reason to keep going, like family or friends – reasons why they need to stay,” said LaBuda. She stressed the need to “make sure the (suicidal person) is safe the whole time, even if they don’t want you there.”

“The (QPR) conversation doesn’t have a point if you don’t act on it and get them the help they need,” Mika explained.

“QPR encourages you to seek someone professional,” LaBuda added, “You do not have to help all on your own.”

Seeking help can involve a “trusted” adult, Wilkinson explained, including teachers, counselors, club leaders, parents or friends’ parents.

Students can also access online resources and use texting to access suicide hotlines. Wilkinson said that young people sometimes preferred digital resources and texting to initiate the conversation about suicide.

“They feel like they are protected,” she added. “They feel like the whole town is not going to know if they need help.”

LaBuda and Mika said the QPR course made them more confident that they can help someone that is suicidal in school, at work, in activities, or down the road as they become adults.

Mika said that when Wilkinson announced they were going to learn QPR, she felt intimidated at first.

“I felt that learning QPR would be really hard to do,” she said. “Once we learned QPR and went through the scenarios, that made it easier. I was like, ‘Okay, I can do this if I had to.’”

“It was reassuring to know that if this situation did come up – and it does happen to a lot of people – you would actually know what to do,” said LaBuda. “It did take a lot of the fear away and put (suicide) out in the air.”

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