By Alyssa Grams, Community HealthCorps® AmeriCorps Alum, Alliance for Rural Community Health
As a part of their service, Community HealthCorps® AmeriCorps members often provide health education and resources in support of the behavioral/mental health services offered by the Community Health Centers where they serve. In recognition of October as National Bullying Prevention Month and September as National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, we are sharing a powerful story from Alyssa Grams, a 2014-2015 Community HealthCorps® AmeriCorps member, about a special project she led to raise awareness about suicide and bullying for middle school students in Mendocino County, CA. After graduating from Community HealthCorps® in July, Alyssa is completing a second year of AmeriCorps service with the Pacific County Resiliency Corps. She is continuing her passion for youth health education, by serving as a teen health liaison for three school districts in partnership with the Teen Advocacy Coalition.
As a Community HealthCorps® AmeriCorps member serving at Laytonville Healthy Start, I work mainly with the youth in my community, teaching nutrition and cooking lessons at the local middle and high schools, helping with after-school programs, facilitating a peer mentorship program, and various other projects. One of my favorite service activities is teaching 50-minute health lessons at Laytonville Middle School. These lessons usually center on fun and innocuous topics like nutrition, healthy relationships, sports nutrition, hygiene, etc. But in January, I took on a more precarious topic with my students: suicide prevention.
It’s hard to imagine there could be suicidal ideation behind the familiar faces in the classrooms at Laytonville Middle School. Sadly, data from the California Healthy Kids Survey suggests that 17% (almost 1 in 5) of Mendocino County seventh graders have seriously considered suicide and, by ninth grade, 8% have actually attempted. There is a lot of fear, misinformation, and stigma around the topic of suicide, but it’s something we clearly need to be talking about, especially with school-aged children.
For my lessons, I recruited the help of the Peer Counselors from Laytonville High School, who are great with facilitating small group discussions in the middle school classrooms. I presented the statistics about rates of teen suicide, how bullying and interpersonal conflict can increase suicide ideation, and common myths about suicide. We then introduced a set of real life scenarios to the students, asking them to identify warning signs of suicide and create a plan of action for each. At first, I was really nervous to talk about such a charged subject, but the students floored me with their maturity and ability to engage with the topic in a meaningful way.
The most intimidating and personal part of the presentation for me also ended up being the best and most meaningful. I posted a photo of myself at age twelve on the board and shared the story of my suicide attempt at that age. I talked about the type of teen I was and what it felt like to be suicidal, and then I allowed the students to ask me questions. It was very difficult to talk about, but the perspective I was able to share was very engaging and evocative for the students. I got more than a couple hugs that day, and I noticed students proudly wearing their suicide prevention wristbands around school weeks later.
No one talked about suicide at my school. When I was in crisis, I felt alone and confused; I didn’t know how to talk about what was going on with me, and I didn’t know how to seek help. At the conclusion of my lessons at Laytonville, the students had a better idea of how to talk about suicide; they were able to identify where to get help and what the appropriate response would be in crisis situations. I am so grateful for the opportunity to take something that was so very painful for me and use it to empower my students. Knowing that my presentations potentially helped even just one student feel less alone and know where to get help for themselves or a friend made this project one of the most meaningful moments in my service year!