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LEBANON — Suicide took the lives of a teacher at Lebanon High School in May and at least four young adults with ties to the community at other times this year.

As the new school year began, senior Cooper Brooks, Lebanon's student body president, was among those looking for ways to bring in strength and support. He envisioned creating an event to share information and resources that might help both the school and the community move forward.

"Ignoring it doesn't make it go away," Brooks said. "We need to be there for each other." 

The result: a community suicide prevention night, set for 6:30 to 8 p.m. Monday, Sept. 25, at the school, 1700 S. Fifth St.

The event is free and open to the public. Visitors will have a chance to ask questions, browse tables with mental health information and help strengthen the message of suicide prevention.

Brooks plans to start the evening in the auditorium, where participants can listen to a speaker and share written, anonymous questions.

After that, visitors will exit to the commons, where health and community services providers will have information to share.

A board where all visitors can share messages of support will be a part of the evening, Brooks said. That's the idea of the whole event: "Whatever we can do to give people strength; let them know we're there." 

After vehicle wrecks, suicide is the highest cause of death among Oregonians ages 15 to 34, according to statistics last collected by the Oregon Health Authority in 2012. It was the eighth-leading cause of death among all Oregonians in 2012, and has been going up steadily since 2000.

As of 2015, the youth suicide rate (ages 10 to 24) in Oregon per 100,000 population ranked 16th highest in the nation. 

Why? No one has a good answer. How to stop it? No one has an ironclad solution for that one, either.

"It's incredibly hard to predict," said Justin Thomas, crisis and admissions supervisor for Linn County Mental Health. "That's one of the things that's hardest from a treatment standpoint." 

Much of the time, people who take their own lives talk about it beforehand — but not always. Sometimes they are already in treatment — but again, not always. 

And sometimes, even when loved ones know there's a problem and have done everything they can to get a person help, it doesn't change the outcome.

"There's not a way to protect people 24 hours from themselves," Thomas said.

Rate slowing

The youth suicide rate is showing some indications of slowing down, however. Work is continuing statewide to help people recognize the warning signs and make sure information is available to help. 

In 2014, Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, then in the Oregon House of Representatives, introduced House Bill 4124 to give the state more tools to intervene with youth in crisis.

The bill, signed that year, accomplished two major initiatives: First, it added a new state job, the Oregon Youth Suicide Prevention coordinator, under the Oregon Health Authority. Second, it updated old information, creating a Youth Suicide Intervention and Prevention Plan and requiring yearly updates about youth suicide and suicide attempts.

In 2015, for the first time in three years, the death by suicide totals for young Oregonians actually dropped slightly: from 97 deaths in 2014 to 90 in 2015.

Statistics haven't been released yet for 2016. It's too early to say whether the 2015 drop is a blip on the radar — or whether any of it is related to Gelser's bill. But it's a sign things are moving in the right direction, Gelser said.

Gelser credits Ann Kirkwood, who got the job as suicide prevention coordinator, with being "a transformational leader." Under Kirkwood's leadership, the Oregon Health Authority has been working more closely with school districts, county mental health organizations, advocacy groups and others to share suicide prevention resources and communicate ideas.

Philomath case

One example: Last fall, when the Philomath School District was coping with an investigation into allegations of hazing on the football team, it received a $7,500 grant from the Oregon Health Authority to help with emotional support for students.

That grant made a huge difference, Philomath Superintendent Melissa Goff said. It helped the district to pilot an anti-bullying, anti-hazing curriculum and to purchase training kits for high school teachers, advisers and coaches, plus an online course for students. That curriculum is being rolled out this week, Goff said.

The grant also supported the Booster Club's "Philomath Strong" campaign, purchasing T-shirts, helping to pay for assemblies and "generally pulling us together so we're all a part of the same unit in supporting each other," Goff said.

The hazing situation caused serious emotional struggles, Goff said, and Philomath was doing everything it could to keep the district from a direct suicide crisis. The state's help was critical in boosting available resources.

"It's not a direct service to specific students who may be considering suicide, but what it is, is an opportunity for community-building that prevents a lot of students from getting to the place where they're considering suicide," she said.

Although it wasn't mandated by Gelser's bill, work to prevent youth suicide also led to the creation of a statewide suicide prevention alliance that held a statewide summit on the issue last year.

"This bill did far more than I thought that it could," Gelser siad. "It has made a meaningful change in the way we address youth suicide in the state of Oregon." 

The problem is far from solved, she added, and it affects Oregonians of all ages, not just adolescents. But the yearly updates and extra attention lead to conversations that can add to society's anti-suicide toolkit.

Collaborations

Linn, Benton and Lincoln counties together, for instance, are working hard on mental health training, both for county staff and for the public, Thomas said. 

If a student who's struggling emotionally has the option of talking to just one person — say, a school counselor — and that person isn't immediately available, the student may have nowhere to go, Thomas said.

But imagine everyone at a school, from the bus drivers to the custodians to the student's best friends, had some training on how to encourage the student to get help. That's what Thomas would like to see.

Ideally, Thomas said, mental health crisis response training will one day become as prevalent as basic first aid. Like a person who knows CPR and can keep a heart attack victim going until a paramedic can arrive, someone who knows the questions to ask and the suggestions to make can help a person in crisis get to someone who's been trained in intervention.

So-called "postvention" training is just as critical as prevention, Thomas said, because done correctly, it can lessen the future risk. But it's also tricky: How do we talk about suicide without making it sound like a viable option? How do we remember the person who died without inadvertently glorifying the manner of death? 

In Lebanon, the community suicide prevention event is meant to get those conversations going, Brooks said — and keep them going, year after year.

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and Brooks' event is among others being advertised around the school, including walks in Salem and Philomath. He's hoping to bring the message to more than just students, however.

He asked to schedule Monday's event for late enough in the evening that adults would be off work and students done with practice, to bring in as many people as possible. "We're hoping for standing room only," he said. 

Brooks said he's also hoping for a ripple effect: that the information about available resources and community support will spread far beyond Monday's attendees.

"This is about strength: showing people we're there for each other," he said. "So the community can be effective in strengthening each other."

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Education Reporter

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