Mental illness, what LHS is doing about it Hayden Cottrell

Each year, 44,965 Americans die by suicide, Lafayette is aiming to lower the numbers through school programs to raise awareness of mental health.

Suicide Survivor Day, Nov. 17, is a day meant to raise awareness. When someone commits suicide, they leave behind family and friends. In fact, a suicide occurs approximately every 12.3 minutes, meaning by the end of every hour, about 634 people have lost a family member or friend to suicide. Of those 634 people, 122 will experience extreme emotional distress requiring help.

Friends and family of those who have died from suicide experience a plethora of responses and emotions after their death. The most common of those emotions are remorse, anger, guilt, isolation, loneliness, shock, fear and trouble understanding why the suicide happened.

Learning to cope with and understand the emotions and pain surrounding suicide often requires help. Many friends and family members seek guidance from professionals, attend support groups or communicate with others impacted by the same suicide to gather support and discuss their feelings.

While having support and treatment does help those affected cope; some cases, however, have directly caused additional suicides to occur.

About 5 percent of adolescent or teenage suicide are a part of what is called a suicide cluster. A suicide cluster is when there are multiple suicides in a small community within the span of a couple months.

“You can be loving, supportive, listen and try to provide suggestions,” Christy Ottinger said, who has a Master’s in Social Work (MSW) and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW).

Friends and family of people who have lost their lives to suicide are called survivors. They have lived and survived a trauma that can cause pain for years and years to come. Suicide Survivor Day is a day meant to recognize survivors and remember loved ones.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a mental illness is something classified as a “mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder,” and does not discriminate between gender, race or age.

Mental illnesses are serious illnesses that can cause great harm to a person’s life. They can lead to physical harm, mental instability and even death. Suicidal thoughts and actions is also an effect of mental illnesses.

One mental illness that can lead to suicide is depression.

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), “the umbrella of depression encompasses Major Depressive Disorder and its related mood disorders including bipolar disorder, postpartum depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome and anxiety disorder.”

With the large range of mood disorders, the APA estimates that depression encompasses about 99 percent of mental illness.

People with depression suffer from symptoms such as anxiety, hopelessness, insomnia, agitation, lack of concentration, weight gain or loss or even poor appetite.

Depression is also correlated with chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart problems.

Anxiety, a mental illness that has affected more and more teenagers and adolescents in recent years, is not strictly limited to stress and panic attacks. It includes a range of phobias, separation anxiety and many other stressors.

“About 80 to 90 percent of clients I see are struggling with anxiety. And those are just the people who are reporting it,” Ottinger said.

Teens are at high risk for depression for a multitude of reasons. School, family life, friends or stress in general can cause teenagers to feel hopeless and become depressed.

The following column is written by an anonymous LHS student.

Looking back at my childhood, I never remember having anxiety or depression; it really started once I moved to St. Louis from the hometown I grew up in. Immediately following the big move came a nasty divorce that threw me off balance. My mother moved on very quickly while my brother dealt with drug addiction, and I was bouncing between homes every few days.

In order to cope with the sudden changes I was facing, I began to close myself off from the world. I purposefully wouldn’t talk to anyone, I hid in my locked bedroom for days on end, I began obsessing over school and homework to keep my mind occupied and I always shot down potential opportunities to hang out with friends. My normal peppy, energetic self had vanished and had been replaced with a constant blank, mundane facial expression as I dealt with a myriad of intrusive thoughts.

I began fantasizing about death. What was it like? What would happen when my parents find out? Would they care? Would anyone else care? These questions wandered in my head for an extremely long time, almost as if I was pondering on whether taking my own life would be “worth it.”

The night that I was planning on following through, a girl that I sometimes talked to in my classes reached out to me asking if I was okay. She had seen my mood visibly become less like myself over the course of a few weeks. Once she found out, she had immediately told her mother, who then contacted my parents, and from there I was taken to the hospital to be evaluated. The nurses and doctors deemed that I was a threat to myself, so I began a tedious recovery where I was transferred to an inpatient facility in the psychiatric ward for extreme and rigorous therapy to treat my symptoms.

Over the years, I made a few trips back to inpatient where I would stay anywhere from five to twelve days when I felt like I was close to losing myself again. To this day, five years after my first admittance, I am still in weekly therapy to learn how to retrain my brain to dismiss the negative thoughts. Five years is a long time, and I’m nowhere near perfect, though I have come a long way.

My biggest mistake in all of this was not talking about my thoughts. Talking about thoughts and feelings is half of the battle with mental illness. Once I began speaking up, the once uphill battle began to flatten out and became easier to climb. I hope you, the person reading this, take away that isolation and silence is the fuel that makes the fire of mental illness burn. Have a conversation with someone about your thoughts, and make sure you get the help you need. If you’re someone who doesn’t struggle with this day to day, be there for your friends, even when it seems like they’re okay. You never truly know what’s going on in their head.

Avery Cantor, a former LHS student, died from suicide during her time at LHS. "The Listening Bench" is a memorial to Cantor, reminding students that someone needs to be listen to, and that someone is always there.

One thing Ottinger always makes sure to ask about when screening for mental illnesses is sleep.

“Often people who struggle with anxiety are not sleeping. I ask them when they go to bed, if when they go to bed do they have any waking? Is it wake up and fall asleep again or are you up for hours stressing?” Ottinger said. “I ask a lot of hygiene questions, such as what are you eating or how many cups of coffee do you drink per day, do you eat lunch or breakfast? Have you ever been hospitalized in the past for mental health issues, or do you have a family history?”

Many mental health illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, can be linked back to genetics in certain cases. Other stressors are social struggles, trauma, a loss of a friend group or loss of a parent or close family member; however, these are just a few of the hundreds of stressors that can cause a person to attempt suicide or have suicidal thoughts.

“They feel like everybody else has kind of found their group, or they don’t feel like they can move groups easily. That alone is just stressful and they need additional support,” Ottinger said.

There are many treatments to help with mental illnesses, such as therapy and medication. Psychologists can also help a person understand and cope with their illness.

“I help kids set goals for themselves, process any type of mental health issues,” Ottinger said.

Like many therapies, a psychologist can talk and keep confidentiality with patients; however, if a patients are showing signs of self-harm, suicidal tendencies or other major concerns, a psychologist can bring parents into the equation so teenagers can get the help that is necessary.

“You never know what to expect, so you can have clients that are functioning very well and all of the sudden there’s a crisis or they’re just in a really dark place, so we make decisions from there,” she said.

Nowadays, with the increase in mental illness education in schools, Ottinger is seeing more adolescents lead initiatives to receive help.

“Some parents call and say that their daughter or son has asked them to make an appointment with a counselor,” Ottinger said. “I’m seeing that more often, which is really wonderful.”

Psychiatrists, on the other hand, possess a role similar to psychologists. They evaluate, diagnose and treat or prescribe the needed therapy. Psychiatrists can also prescribe medicine that an individual may need, something a psychologist can not do.

Medicine to treat mental illness is unique. Some research suggest that some mental illnesses are caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, so the medication to treat these mental illnesses are made to specifically treat the chemical imbalances that people may be experiencing.

Suicide is not solely caused by mental illness. Suicide can also be caused by bullying, a loss of a close friend or relative, etc.

Some LHS clubs act as outlets for students struggling with bullying, loss or mental illnesses.

Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) is a safe space for any students who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community.

“Students need a safe place to meet with others like them who might have struggles with being different,” Melissa Schumacher, the club sponsor, said. “They work on projects together, so they have a sense of accomplishing something to help improve school climate.”

GSA started around six years ago, when two students decided they wanted a safe place for LGBTQ+ students to meet.

"We all need to be there for the people in our lives who are struggling so they can get better and continue their story,” Stephen Klawitter said.

Another outlet for students is a group called Young Life, an active organization since 1941 and a Lafayette club since 2013.

“We are in the high schools and getting to know students,” leader Matt Morrow-Howell said. “We want to build bridges of friendship and earn that right to be heard as a leader.”

Young Life takes the time to converse with each and every kid, and help out every child in anyway they can.

“We meet kids where they are at and I have come across students with various mental health issues like anxiety and depression. I’ve experienced walking alongside students who are bipolar. It takes a lot of patience and persistence but it is worth it,” Morrow-Howell said. “We are not out to fix anyone but we want to show that we care and are there for students.”

The main club at LHS that is equipped to help all students with suicidal thoughts and mental illnesses is Lancers Helping Lancers (LHL).

Members of LHL gather for their first meeting of the year on Sept. 6. At the meetings, LHL members learn about different mental illness, suicide and ways to help those within their school struggling with mental illnesses and suicide.

“The mission of LHL is to engage in suicide prevention, to de-stigmatize mental illness and to promote a culture of kindness and caring among our school community,” said Steven Klawitter, one of the LHL sponsors.

LHL came about after the suicides of students Avery Cantor and Noah Cook. Klawitter and other teachers were approached by a student wanting to help her peers after the suicides.

Members of LHL are taught to look out for their peers and help raise awareness of the struggles facing the community.

“A number of students have had specialized suicide prevention training by CHADs Coalition so that they can be school-wide ambassadors that are ready to help their peers at any time. Students have also booked guest speakers, including Avery's mother Carol," Klawitter said. “On occasion they have organized a movie night to watch Walking Man, a documentary about a local man who walked across Missouri to raise awareness in the fight against suicide, especially in rural communities.”

Within the community, though, there still remains a stigma around suicide and mental illnesses.

“Any [mental illness] really has a negative view within our school,” Jacob Hinton, junior, said.

Students make fun of mental illnesses and suicide. They belittle how great of an impact both have upon a person and their surrounding community.

“I notice a lot of stuff with guys in particular. Whenever they feel depressed or anything like that, they don’t really talk about it much,” Jordan Kaddouri, senior, said. “People think it’s kind of like a weakness or something.”

Someone's image to their peers is important to students. How they are perceived by others can greatly impact their mental health.

“Some people are just embarrassed. They don’t to look weird,” Kaddouri said.

Within her classes and the hallways, Kaddouri has heard others joking around about dying or claiming they have a mental illness when something isn’t how they want.

“Hearing people laughing and making jokes is upsetting to see. People suffer and die. It’s not something we should be making jokes about,” Kaddouri said.

Counselors within the school district can help students and parents with referrals and help with mental illnesses.

Currently, counselors normally meet with a student to access how they are feeling, what could be the solution to the issue and then contact a student’s parents for further assistance. Class schedules can also be changed to help students fully get all the help they made need.

Counselors can communicate with teachers the needs a student may require that a student may not necessarily be comfortable telling their teachers on their own.

Having teachers, parents, counselors, friends, principals and nurses involved in making a plan to regularly aid and check up on the student is seen as a more beneficial way to fully assist a student. A group approach towards aiding students who struggle with mental illnesses and suicide is often used as it has multiple people looking out for a student.

The model school policy, in fact, from the Trevor Project, a non-profit organization specializing in suicide prevention in at-risk LGBTQ+ youth, calls out small group suicide prevention programming in schools. Small group prevention programming in schools has been shown to help out students within schools get the help they need to get better.

If a counselor or another school official receives a call about a student with potential suicidal behavior, there is a strict course of action that takes place.

First, all reports of suicidal behaviors are taken seriously. Staff members must report these behaviors to others trained in the Risk Assessment Screening.

People trained in Risk Assessment Screening are the nurses, counselors, administrators and social workers usually. The student is not left alone, and the Risk Assessment is conducted.

According to Regulation 1412 of the Rockwood School District Regulations and Policies, “the Risk Screening Form and Risk Assessment are semi-structured instruments that the Assessment Conductor can follow to ensure that the most common risk factors known to be associated with suicide in young people have been assessed. The tools provide the Assessment Conductor with an overview, allowing this person to make a best judgment call as to the level of risk for imminent suicide.”

After performing the Risk Assessment, the school then acts accordingly with the results. Parents are informed that a report was made that their student is dealing with suicidal thoughts.

Counselors have the ability to refer students to outside treatment programs or counseling. There are multiple agencies and programs within St. Louis that counselors can refer to.

At school, though, there are five counselors, one social worker and a Social Emotional Specialist that see students and help refer students to outside help if it is necessary.

“All students and their friends should know that mental illness is treatable and there are many avenues to get help, from speaking with student LHL Ambassadors and trusted adults here in the building to the national suicide prevention hotline (1-800-273-TALK) where a live person can always be reached 24/7,” Klawitter said. “I would also encourage any youth who identifies as LGBTQ+ and is feeling unsupported to checkout www.itgetsbetter.org. Everyone has a story to tell, everyone matters. We all need to be there for the people in our lives who are struggling so they can get better and continue their story.”

Contributions from Natalie Karlsson.


Hayden Cottrell

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.