|2 online articles from this issue.|
A college event focusing on depression, suicidal thoughts, addictions and overall mental health does not sound like a typical "student entertainment" staple, yet the response from students has been overwhelming, to say the least. The ongoing effect on both campus staff and the student body only shows that, if you bring those issues up in a creative way, young people will open up and talk about them.
The Alive! Mental Health Fair and Suicide Prevention Tour is the program of Kristin Brooks Hope Center (KBHC), a DC based non-profit organization raising awareness about suicide prevention through both traditional and unconventional means. After the tragic loss of his wife Kristin to suicide, KBHC Founder Reese Butler linked over 200 crisis centers all over the US into the National Hopeline Network (1-800-SUICIDE) and launched a suicide prevention Pick Up The Phone Music Tour which featured "Blue October" in 2010 and the late Michael Jackson's eldest sister, Rebbie Jackson this year. 1-800-SUICIDE and other peer-to-peer hotlines, free and confidential to the public, as well as music outreach, helped millions connect to help and hope. Yet many groups, including college students, still suffer from high levels of suicide, untreated depression and mental health issues. They are harder to reach though traditional awareness programs.
"Every college campus is a unique group of individuals where each person has a story to tell. We didn't want to bring a program to the campus that would seem like another educational course. We wanted to give each student an opportunity to express themselves, and to take part in creating a lasting masterpiece to remind them daily how exceptional they are and that there is hope".
The Alive! Mental Health Fair is an all-day event which consists of several ongoing and time specific exhibits. One of the biggest draws is 'Post Your Own Secret' Exhibit. In the month prior to coming to each campus thousands of blank Post Cards are placed at strategic locations around campus with a drop box to place the card in. Students are encouraged to take one or more of the cards and write their secret(s) on the back of the postcard. It can be anything from a simple sentence to an artistic rendering of their thoughts and feelings. Once the student has created the 4"x6" card with their "secret", they leave it in the drop box. On the day of the Fair, the postcards are displayed in a massive exhibit to show students what secrets are being hidden around them and that their fears and weaknesses are shared by others just like them. Silly, shocking, sad, hilarious, angry, heart wrenching – students' secrets evoke different emotions and consistently gather a crowd around them.
Some campuses visited by the Alive! Mental Health Fair had over 20% of the student body create these mini works of art containing deep personal secrets. As a result each student who took the time to share their feelings and create the art came out to the exhibit to see if it was displayed, as well as to see what other students had shared.
Another part of the Fair, which attracts the most outgoing students as well as complete introverts in flocks is the Graffiti Art Therapy Exhibit. Students are invited to "create graffiti without getting arrested" and are provided with a variety of tools, from markers to spray cans, to write and draw their messages on a huge canvas. Weeks in advance, the organizers of the fair contact each campus to learn more about the unique character of that particular school, their mascot and words that would inspire the students. Then a one of a kind canvas is created for each college with a pre-populated outline of their mascot or logo and the school's name.
The Fair visited seven campuses in 2010. Seven 10'x 4' foot long canvases were created by over a thousand students with messages of inspiration and artistic renderings which now hang at each campus in a prominent location. The canvas at each school reminds students daily of their message of hope and what their fellow students thought and felt that day.
Some students wrote poignant heartfelt messages that inspired many who read them. Some created art and others tagged the canvas in their own way. The key to the success of each of the Graffiti Art Projects was the ability to stop a student in his or her tracks and give them an opportunity to have a conversation that otherwise would not have taken place. Those that had already made their mark on the canvas would proudly point to what they had written. It was a low bar to cross to begin the dialog about what was going on in their lives and in many cases connect them to the Post Your Own Secret Exhibit or the lecture series which included documentaries on suicide, bullying and how to learn the warning signs for suicide and how to prevent it. Many who attended the suicide prevention training did so after learning about it during their stop at the Graffiti Art Project or the Post Your Own Secret Exhibit.
Both the Graffiti Art Therapy and the students' secrets exhibits stay open throughout the day . They are usually strategically located in a high traffic area to make sure that even occasional passers-by have a chance to participate. In between the secrets postcards there are posters with brain scans of people suffering from different mental illnesses and addictions. Students can clearly see the effect each illness has on the human brain. While the disease itself is not like an obvious broken leg or arm, the brain scans show it's not as invisible as many still think. There are secrets that clearly speak about the devastating effect that bipolar disorder, alcoholism and drug addictions have on families and friends. Also, on display are warning signs of suicidal behavior, so even if students came only to read the fun part of the exhibit – they can't miss the potentially life-saving education part of it.
While overall the secrets exhibit is a fun thing to read, many times the anonymous nature of the secret is the only way for a student to reach out and tell others what they really feel. Here's one of the multiple examples that Reese experienced: "At one school a resident advisor pointed out a card to me that clearly indicated that the student was at a high level of suicide risk. The RA said that she knew the girl, Stacy (name changed) who wrote the secret because Stacy had shared the traumatic experience (loss of her brother's to suicide) and how her brother's death didn't leave any hope in life for her. Stacy had been thinking about ending her life, scared to share her thoughts with anyone. While for a suicide prevention specialist, the mere fact of her being a survivor of suicide puts her at high risk, neither Stacy nor the RA knew about it.
"I was now concerned for both students, as one carried a secret that could derail her future, and the other bore the knowledge and felt helpless as to what to do. I let the RA know that she was no longer alone in her effort to help this young woman. I let her know the key to really helping her would be to build a safety net around her from her parents to the school counselors and any other people she could trust. By the end of the fair, the RA reported to me excitedly that the student had voluntarily agreed to go see the counselor and share what was going on. By the time I left campus this had occurred. It took the secrets exhibit, as well as the Student Activities Coordinator who cared enough to bring the fair to their school, the campus resources available both on and off campus and, of course, the caring resident advisor who encouraged her friend to create the secret to release some of the pressure of holding this situation in for all these years. Not one of us by ourselves could have helped this young woman make the leap from painful, agonizing, silent grief to meeting with a caring trained counselor and begin the path to recovery. It shows the student council body that the Fair compliments the existing services and gives them the opportunity to help students who are unsure how to approach school counseling services.
At Penn State, the biggest draw was the keynote speech given by the founder of 1-800-SUICIDE, Reese Butler. It was a standing room only crowd. At the end of the powerful and inspiring speech that chronicled the many miracles which made the creation and success of 1-800-SUICIDE and the National Hopeline Network possible, two young women approached Reese each with a different story. One was a sophomore who in her first year was a straight "A" student who lost her sister to suicide between the first and second year. The second year her grades reflected her own grief and depression as she was failing every course. She signed up for a training course and they were able to use that connection to make sure the counseling staff was alerted to the risk and guide her through her grief therapy making sure she did not fall through the cracks.
During the Fair students have the opportunity to take a one hour QPR (Question Persuade & Refer) suicide prevention course. This shorter version of the comprehensive QPR course, created by the Spokane-based QPR Institute, teaches students how to recognize the signs of suicidal behavior. Often times after a suicide occurs, people who knew the victim say that there were no signs of the upcoming tragedy, while, in fact, the person gave away his/her possessions and openly told their friends that soon they wouldn't need them anymore. This and other clues are taught in the QPR course in an easy to understand way so that students become more aware of the signals their friends send to them. They are taught to ask directly: "Are you thinking of ending your life?" and what to do to help a friend who is suicidal.
The one-hour course has inspired many students in different ways. Some students sign up for the course only to learn that all this time they were missing the signs that a friend was sending them. Some recognize those signs in themselves. At one school, a young woman turned out to be a psychology major who wanted to volunteer as an intern for the National Hopeline Network. She approached the Chair of the Psychology Department and asked that the program be added to the menu of internship opportunities for the students at the school. Because of the passion she had for the organization, the Online Suicide Intervention Specialist training course is now available to all students at this campus as an internship for course credit. This would not have happened without the fair and its many components.
At another school QPR training was made a requirement of all Resident Advisors and by the end of the two-day fair we had trained 168 RA's and certified them as Suicide Prevention GateKeepers.
In addition, we show at each school the documentary produced by Media Projects called A Reason To Live and this year have added Bullied. Bullied is a documentary film that chronicles one student's ordeal at the hands of anti-gay bullies and offers an inspiring message of hope to those fighting harassment today. It can become a cornerstone of anti-bullying efforts in middle and high schools.
Bullied is designed to help create a safer school environment for all students, not just those who are gay and lesbian. It is also intended to help all students understand the terrible toll bullying can take on its victims and to encourage students to stand up for their classmates who are being harassed.
Bullied has been endorsed by Charles Haynes, Senior Scholar at the First Amendment Center; Kevin Gogin, Program Coordinator, Support Services for LGBT Youth, San Francisco Unified School District; Sandra Lee Fewer, Commissioner, San Francisco Unified School District and these organizations: Alabama Safe Schools Coalition, Anti-Defamation League, Committee for Children, Encompass, Fortunate Families, GLSEN, Groundspark, Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition, National Safe Schools Coalition, NEA, New York State United Teachers, PFLAG National and Welcoming Schools/HRC.
"This film is powerful, important and extremely realistic. It provides teachers with a rare opportunity to address bullying in a real and meaningful way." -- Lee Cutler, Secretary/Treasurer, New York State United Teachers
A Reason to Live is a documentary created by Media Projects and was a winner of the Voice Awards by Entertainment Industry Coalition and the SAMHSA.
The filmmakers choose to begin the documentary with the case of a young man. As his story begins to unfold, the film cuts to the first-hand accounts of young people and their parents, only to then cut back to the next excerpt of the evolving crisis case. The filmmakers skillfully shift back and forth between the drama of the unfolding mock cases and the first-hand accounts of real kids and parents. The net effect of this interplay creates the opportunity for the viewer to witness hallmark features of suicidal risk among youths. There is the classic "cry for help," the fights between kids and parents, missed communications, and misunderstandings.
As the intimate stories of the young people play out across the course of the movie, one gets a real feeling for their lives as their narratives are artfully peppered with images from their lives, pictures of early childhoods, even a recording from an inpatient facility. Such images help paint a fuller and richer picture of these complex lives.
To this end, there was an account of one father particularly poignant in that he is the only parent in the film who does not have the companion account of his daughter— because she took her life. His painfully candid and brokenhearted description of losing her, visiting her room, and grasping for answers that will never come is moving.
Through the first-person approach, the young people tell their stories of suicidal struggles (without any intrusive interviewer asking questions). These young people usefully describe the phenomenology of a young person with suicide on his or her mind. It follows that they are also describing classic symptoms of mood spectrum disorders and related constructs that are endemic to suicidal youth. As expected, there are discussions of seeing themselves as a burden on their loved ones, being bullied and taunted by peers, and the potential struggles of being gay in a straight world.
The youths in the film also describe the unique pain and suffering that are emblematic of suicidal states as well as related behaviors such as substance use and abuse and cutting; problems with weight and being different; and various social struggles. These young people further describe feelings of embarrassment and shame connected to their mental health issues and their behaviors.
Throughout this film, the pivotal role of relationships in youth suicide is made plain. For example, the crisis counselor in the mock crisis call with the suicidal young man (who is very distressed over the loss of a girlfriend) engages him in a discussion about his younger brother as a key intervention. While it is perhaps a bit of a guilt trip, this points to how one can literally or figuratively "bring in" key others as an effective deterrent to delay suicidal behaviors.
Making the reality of suicide and its interpersonal impact on others clear is a distinct strength of this documentary.
No one has watched this in any of their screenings without being deeply moved. They also station at each door a counselor with an Alive! Mental Health Fair T-shirt on with the words "Stressed? Need Someone to Talk To?"
This makes it easier for people at risk to locate a safe person to talk with if the film or other presentations cause anyone to have disturbing thoughts as a result of issues they had coming into the presentation.
So after one year of Alive! Mental Health fairs, thousands of college students have been exposed to positive messaging in relation to mental health counseling, alternative therapies, hundreds of trained and certified gatekeepers and several lives saved as a result of the efforts of the schools, the staff at the fairs and the wonderful volunteers at each organization that participated at the fairs as on or off campus resources.
BOOK IT! To Book the ALIVE! Mental Health Fair for your campus, contact Degy Entertainment: Ari Nisman at (732) 818-9600 or Jeff Hyman at (217) 359-4243.