A group of Lake Orion parents gathered Monday to learn more about teen suicide and ways to steer teens away from it during a featuring a grief recovery expert.
Hundreds of parents packed 's auditorium for the event sponsored by Dragons United, a group dedicated to raising awareness in the wake of a devastating series of teen suicides among Lake Orion teens.
Dave Opalewski, a grief recovery expert who teaches at Central Michigan University, shared personal stories, discussed suicide statistics and counseled parents to keep the lines of communication open.
"The No. 1 preventative measure is to talk about it," Opalewski said. " Lake Orion has already started that."
"I think we are really on the right path" in the effort to fight suicides, said Chris Barnett, PTO president at Lake Orion High School. "This is not a school problem; this is a community problem."
Not just a problem for Lake Orion
Opalewski made one point clear: Suicides are increasing throughout Michigan and the country in general, not just in Lake Orion. He commended Lake Orion Community Schools for bringing the topic to the forefront instead of ignoring the issue.
"Lake Orion is just being honest," he said.
There have been 10 suicides in the past four years among current or former Lake Orion students. Parents, teachers and students have come together to try to find solutions to the issue and to prevent further tragedy.
Opalewski said youth turn to suicide to relieve the pain they are feeling. They want the pain to stop, which is why he noted many teens turn to cutting – a specific type of self-mutilation in which a person causes harm to him or herself on purpose. This allows their mind to focus on the physical pain as opposed to the pain they feel inside, Opalewski said.
According to statistics Opalewski presented at the forum:
- Seventh-grade girls attempt suicide the most out of Michigan's youth.
- Eighth-grade boys complete suicide the most in Michigan.
- 63 teenagers in the United States die everyday from suicide.
- The No 1 influence for youth is television, followed by peers.
- In an average classroom it is likely that three students - one boy, two girls - have made a suicide attempt.
Many of the statistics he presented came from the Michigan Association of Suicidology.
Putting everything into perspective
Opalewski said 10 of 12 children or teens who committed suicide in Michigan since the beginning of the year were National Honor Society students and were at the top of their class. Parents need to keep things in perspective, he emphasized, and to keep in mind that college isn't for everybody – that grades shouldn't be the only thing that matters.
"We have to be very careful about the pressure we put on our kids today," Opalewski said.
Likewise, some students feel excessive pressure from parents to do well in a sport, he said. Sadly, he noted, that pressure can develop at a young age. He said he has watched parents harshly yelling from the sideline at their 6-year-old children. It's important for kids to be able to have fun and just be kids, he said.
Similarly he pleaded with parents in the audience to try not to live their lives through their children and to let them grow to be who they want to be – not who their parents want them to be.
What you say and don't say is important
There are many little things that can improve the quality of life for children, Opalewski noted, pointing to having regular family meals at the dinner table, teaching them that wealth is in quality relationships, and instilling confidence in children to make good choices on their own.
Listening is the most important thing parents can do, according to Opalewski, who told parents to avoid giving their child advice if the child is opening up and isn't asking for advice.
"Just being a good listener is important," he said. "They know you can't fix it."
What You Shouldn't Say or Do
Things not to say and do if your child is suicidal, according to Opalewski:
- Reverse psychology is a bad idea. Don't try to scare your teen by suggesting they go through with their plan.
- Do not be judgmental.
- Do not suggest that you were a perfect teen.
- Don't agree to keep their troubles a secret.
- When they tell you they are considering suicide, or are depressed, don't use generalizations that are not considerate of their feelings, such as "these are the best times of your life." Instead, validate what they are feeling.
What To Say and Do
Appropriate things to say and do:
- Don't praise accomplishments, praise efforts.
- Use encouraging words, such as "I believe in you."
- Let them know you are there for them.
- Help them to realize that suicide is irreversible.
- Ask them what they are thinking and don't be afraid to be direct.
4 Critical Questions to Ask
These four questions are important to ask and could save a life, said Opalewski:
- Are you thinking about suicide?
- What is going on?
- Where does it hurt?
- What can we do to help?
Keeping guns out of the house, or locked up with shells in a separate room, is important, he said, as is keeping an eye on children and ensuring they aren't using alcohol and drugs. Family therapy and seeking medical attention are also key.
"They do get better, they get much better with help," Opalewski said. "There's a lot of hope today for the treatment of depression."
A Powerpoint presentation with Opalewski's lecture will be available on the Lake Orion Community Schools website.