Suicide Awareness and Prevention Walk
Last week, the Oneida County Hospital and a number of other sponsors put on the annual Suicide Prevention and Awareness Walk. The event is part of a national movement to raise awareness about the prevalence of suicide in the U.S., as well as strategies for helping those who may be struggling with suicidal thoughts. The event is also a platform for spreading awareness of resources available to those affected by suicide.
Free T-shirts with the slogan “You are Enough” were handed out to the dozens of attendees who filled the High School auditorium. The many sponsors also staffed booths that provided information on the local resources for suicide prevention. After a speech, the event turned into a solemn walk in remembrance of those whose lives have been lost to suicide, beginning at the school and moving up and down Jenkins Avenue. The event has been held at the City Park in the past, but due to expected rain, the venue was moved inside the school.
Idaho ranked ninth in the U.S. for suicide rates in 2021, with a rate of 20.1 per 100,000 people, which is slightly down from its 2018 ranking of fifth. Utah has been ranked sixth in the last several reports. Surrounding states Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, and New Mexico have all been consistently ranked in the top five. Suicide rates are significant for all age groups, but they have been highest among those in the 30-39 year age group, as well as the 70-79 year age group, according to the National Institutes of Health. Oneida County is no exception to these statistics, and one of the missions of the program was to highlight how close to home the suicide epidemic is to everyone. Signs outside the walking course listed the names of those family members who have died as a result of suicide.
Jon Abrams, current School Superintendent, was the featured speaker at the event. Abrams has been involved in education for 36 years, in a number of capacities (including service as an elementary, middle school, and high school principal), and he shared the following remarks:
“Over the course of my career, I’ve been asked to speak at any number of events. But this is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. Like many of you here, I’ve lost friends, students, family to suicide. And I must tell you, in that time I’ve done a lot of growing and a lot of learning over the course of those years. And I wanted to share my first close experience with it. I was teaching at Burley Junior High, just down the road. It was just a normal morning like any other morning when I walked into school. And it quickly became apparent that this was anything but a normal day. The night before one of my students had taken his own like. Seventh grade. Spenser was his name. I’ll never forget Spenser. He was smaller than most, had a hard time fitting in. He just wanted to be part of the group. He just wanted to be loved. Wanted to be liked, and feel like he belonged.
At the time at the Junior High they had a club. The kids had formed a club they called the Navy Seals. And they had their Navy Seal hats, and they all hung out together. And they told Spenser, ‘Hey, do you want to join our club? We’ll give you a hat and an initiation, and then you’ll be part of the club.’ So, he went and got his hat, and he showed up when they told him to show up. No one was there. The next day he came to school and he was just as happy and bubbly as ever. But he started doing some things that day that were a little different. He gave his hat away. He gave his radio away. He gave anything anyone wanted away. I guess that was just naïve on my part—I was unaware of what a low place Spenser was at. That night he went home and took his life.
At that time in schools, we hadn’t dealt with a lot of that. Or at least I hadn’t at that point in my career. And a lot of what we did to try to show respect to Spenser was completely contrary to what we now know. No one called a faculty meeting to talk to us about what we should do. No one even called me to tell me that one of my students had taken their lives. It was just one poor choice after poor choice, which tragically led to some copycats. What I learned from that experience thirty-three years ago were some of the things I’d like to share tonight.
First off, be very, very slow to judge someone who’s struggling. You don’t know what they’re going through. It may appear to you that their life is pretty good. But you never know what someone is going through. And we would never judge someone who said ‘I’m going to the doctor, I broke my arm.’ We would encourage them to get help. And yet somehow, someone with mental illness, we think that’s something to be embarrassed about. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you know someone’s struggling, you encourage them to get the help.
Another thing, there isn’t a person in this room who is immune, or who doesn’t know someone who might experience mental illness. Just be there for them. Be a good listener, and a slow, slow judge. There are people who are trained to help people who are struggling with mental illness. Most of use aren’t those people. What we all can and must do is be a good listener, and never, ever promise that you won't tell someone else. Because that’s how we save lives—by making connections with those who can help.
Be kind. No one should ever have to eat lunch alone. No one should ever have to walk down halls filled with people feeling that there’s no one they can turn to.
I didn’t plan to share this experience that I had this last week, but I feel that it’s appropriate since there are so many young people here. I had a couple students seeking advice call me. And they said, ‘we wonder if you have some money in your budget to help us with a project.’ So I asked them to tell me about the project. They said, ‘Last year we were feeling like we didn’t fit, or belonged. We decided to do something about it, so we formed a club. And when we see someone struggling we do something about it. And we just wondered if you had any resources to help us get some supplies.’ So I wrote them a check for what they needed, because we do have resources in this community. And these kids were such a great example—taking something that in most people’s world would be a very negative thing and turning into a very positive thing, and that’s what we need more of in this world.
Next, don’t minimize what someone is going through. When someone talks to you, just listen. Encourage them, and help them find the resources to help them through the difficult times.
Finally, I want to tell you one question I’ve been asking over thirty years every time I interview someone who wants to teach: can a teacher be too empathetic? Can they put themselves too much in the shoes of their students? And the answer I often get is “absolutely. You get yourself too involved in their lives and live vicariously and it’s too much.” But the answer I’m looking for is “absolutely not. Empathy is simply walking in someone else’s shoes. And the more you walk in someone else’s shoes, the more you’re able to help them be happy and successful as a student and a person.” I’m going to invite everyone to do what I know you’re already going to do this year—be more aware. Be quicker to help. And remember, no one’s life ought to end tragically.
I do want to end on one other note, because many of you will have lost someone very close to you through suicide—whether a friend, a spouse, a grandchild, a child—there’s one thing I know for absolutely sure: that if they could be here right now, they would want to tell you that they’re okay. And that you’re going to be okay. Don’t blame yourself. Don’t focus on the regrets you may have of what you didn’t do. Just live. Be kind. And love those that come to you. I promise you if you do that, this can be a pretty darn good life. Not without its challenges, not without mistakes, but a wonderful life. And I thank you for being here and being part of this wonderful life of helping people feel better about themselves, and feeling value.”
Sponsors for the event included the Nell J. Redfield Hospital, the Oneida Crisis Center, MHS Counseling Services, Southeast Idaho Public Health, Jody Owens Labyrinth Assessment & Behavioral Health Services, the family of Troy Estep, and others.