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home : current news : current news October 21, 2018

1/30/2018 2:08:00 PM
Sisters takes on suicide prevention
By Charlie Kanzig

A distressed family member takes her own life, leaving the survivors to grapple with tormenting what-ifs, horrible guilt, paralyzing helplessness and incomprehensible grief.

Family and friends ask, "Could I have done more? Did I miss some warning signs? Did they try to tell me and I dismissed their comments? Did they tell anyone their plans and no one spoke up?"

Suicide, long an almost taboo subject, is the cause of death for approximately 38,000 Americans in a given year and rates among minors continues to grow, according to the Center for Disease Control. The rate of suicide among teenagers has more than doubled since 2007, according to the same source.

The time has come to address the topic head-on, says Sisters Middle School counselor Brook Jackson. That is why he and other staff members from the Sisters School District are working to do everything possible to help prevent suicide locally, including the hosting of a community presentation, as well as assemblies at Sisters Middle School and Sisters High School to follow later.

The community event, scheduled for 6 to 7:30 p.m. Monday, February 5, at Sisters High School is designed in part to expand the care and connect concept to the entire local population. In addition, presenters will share pertinent information that includes real statistics, warning signs, action steps, and resources.

The school assemblies will take place the following day at a later date, still to be determined. Parents will be welcome to attend as well.

Among the presenters are Jason and Kristy Winebarger, whose 12-year-old son Jacob died by suicide here in Central Oregon in January 2016, when he was a seventh-grader at Skyview Middle School in Bend. In the time since their son's death, the Winebargers have made themselves available to schools and other organizations to support suicide prevention education.

Additionally, school counselors, health teachers, school nurses and other mental-health professionals will take part in the presentations.

Oregon actually remains among the states in America with the highest suicide rates, and in the past two months at least two students have died by suicide in Central Oregon, bringing the reality close to home.

"Our aim is to do all we can so that parents and students themselves can understand more about how to prevent suicide," said Heather Johnson, a health teacher at Sisters High School. Johnson collects data from students each year through her classroom and with the Oregon Healthy Teens survey, and the statistics are sobering.

One of the statistics from last year's ninth- and eleventh-graders at Sisters High School indicated that about a quarter (25 percent) of students had either experienced suicidal thoughts or actually made attempts at suicide.

Knowing when students are struggling is a key part of prevention, which is one of the reasons Johnson is working to expand a concept she calls "Care and Connect."

Students in Johnson's classes are taught about the power of individual students taking action when they notice a friend or classmate who exhibits warning signs, which can include withdrawal, talk of feeling depressed, change in behavior/manner, drug and alcohol use and difficult life experiences.

One simple way of thinking of warning signs includes the three "H"s, which stand for feeling helpless, hopeless and/or hapless.

"We use Care and Connect cards that students can fill out anonymously that allow them to communicate their concerns about students they are concerned about, including themselves. I then turn those over to a counselor or other professional support staff to follow up on," Johnson said.

The Care and Connect cards help to overcome the "code of silence" that tends to be pervasive in our society, especially among teens, according to Johnson.

"Kids tend to think they are protecting their friends by keeping secrets, or they think that if they speak up their friends will be angry with them," said Johnson. "We are working to help students understand that truly caring means urging friends to get help or to tell a trusted adult who can offer proper support."

The Winebargers have wisdom to share with other parents, and students as well, that they truly hope will help families avoid the tragedy they have experienced.

In an interview by KTVZ in September 2016, Jason Winebarger said, "What we've been through, we want to prevent anyone else from having to go through that. You don't want to be a member of this club."

According to Johnson, the Care and Connect assemblies will allow attendees to learn more about local resources, but even more importantly, how each person, as a friend, neighbor, classmate or family member can make a pivotal difference in preventing suicide from happening.

"The bottom line is that we have to look out for each other and be able to recognize when those around us need immediate care," she said.

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