It was around 12:30 a.m. on April 17 when a Eugene couple nearly lost their 16-year-old daughter to suicide.
The nightmare, as they described it, began with the “ding” of a text message alert.
“Very urgent,” it read. “It’s about (your daughter). My son just woke me up and said that she took a bunch of painkillers and is trying to kill herself. Please respond that you got this, because I’m about to call 911.”
The couple ran to their daughter’s room and found her semi-conscious and breathing. They called 911, and the girl was taken by ambulance to PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Springfield where she remained for 10 days, five of which were in a medically induced coma. The family later found a suicide note, an empty bottle of alcohol and two empty bottles of Nyprosen, a prescription-strength form of Advil.
The girl has since fully recovered from the incident and suffered no long-term health problems. While the couple are overwhelmingly grateful that their daughter is alive, they say more needs to be done in Eugene and throughout Oregon to prevent youth suicides and suicide attempts. The parents are not being identified by The Register-Guard because of concerns that publicizing their names could cause further harm to their daughter.
“Kids need to know that it’s OK to fail,” the father said. “They need to know that it’s OK to get upset and that there’s so much more life that’s ahead of them. They need to know that they’re more than just who they compare themselves to on Instagram — that they can get through the hard stuff.”
A Eugene-area school district is working to deliver some of those messages — and in the process reduce the number of youth suicides in the area — with a new, peer-based program that focuses on helping students to identify their own inner strengths and resilience, as well as identify signs of depression and anxiety and to reach out for help when needed.
Sources of Strength, a program used by the Bethel School District, emphasizes positive school culture through open communication and discussion. It also attempts to normalize feelings of anxiety and depression in an effort to lessen the negative connotations often associated with such mental health issues.
In addition to shifting school and youth culture, local mental health professionals also believe the program will help to de-stigmatize mental illness and promote overall wellness.
While the daughter of the Eugene couple has been home-schooled since third grade and doesn’t attend classes in the Bethel district, her story represents an all-too-frequent experience among teens in the area — suicide is the second leading cause of death among 10- to 24-year-olds in Oregon. The most recent examples include the suicide deaths of eight Lane County youths, ages 11 to 24, in 2018 — five of them between mid-January and late April, according to Lane County Public Health officials.
The county typically averages seven adolescent suicides per year.
Sources of Strength aims to recognize students’ feelings but not dwell on negative thoughts to the point of hopelessness, said Dawn Delorefice, an assistant principal at Willamette High School.
“We want to let students know that what they’re feeling is real and honor those feelings but then help them move forward in a positive way,” Delorefice said. “So often we’re consumed with what we’re feeling and we can’t see past what’s happening right now, but we want to equip students with the skills to be able to see how things can improve, and help them to find the strength to get there.”
The program seeks to reach students before life’s challenges become so overwhelming that they feel as if there’s no way out, said Bethel District Health Center director Brooke Cottle. It also aims to support and empower peer leaders and caring adults through “connection, hope, help and strength.”
Alarming rates of depression, suicide and mental health issues among students is what prompted Bethel School District Superintendent Chris Parra to begin looking at options. Following Parra’s research, she presented two suicide prevention programs to leadership teams at Bethel middle and high schools. The teams settled on Sources of Strength.
“As a team we knew there was a need for more support for our students,” Parra said. “And, we agreed on Sources for two specific reasons. One, it has more research behind it. Two, its reach goes beyond suicide prevention and we liked the approach of focusing on strengths and wellness.”
For Parra, adopting a suicide prevention program was a natural and logical next step in helping students.
“We are seeing a growing need for student support around mental health issues at all grades,” Parra said.
Sources of Strength is a peer-based program that promotes positivity, connectivity, school bonding, peer-adult partnerships and help-seeking behavior. Students in the program work to establish a positive culture at school through activities, awareness campaigns, interactions with students and other forms of outreach.
The cluster of youth suicides last year made 16-year-old Haley Montgomery also want to become more involved at Willamette High School.
“With my personality, I feel a need to help others if they need it,” said Montgomery, a sophomore. “I’m willing to speak up in front of crowds, even though I’m shy, if it could help someone, if it could change their future.”
The student training that took place a couple of weeks ago helped Montgomery to see her peers in a new light and feel more comfortable with people she didn’t normally interact with, she said.
“With the training I found it easier to talk to other people,” she said. “The games we played required me not to just latch on to my friends. It helped me get out of my head and interact with people and now it doesn’t feel as scary to talk to people who aren’t in my group of friends.”
Teachers and administrators are hopeful.
“The research is clear,” said Jill Baker, a counselor and suicide prevention coordinator for the South Albany High School, where Sources of Strength was implemented in 2014. “Teenagers will tell their friends far earlier than they will tell adults if they are having thoughts of suicide. By equipping teenagers to how to find their strengths amidst life’s ups and downs, we are adding in a layer of protection for the students who are trained in Sources and anyone in their social network.”