How to help: Lisa Stepro, Team of Mercy volunteer/ambassador, provides suicide prevention training to staff at North Central Junior-Senior High School. Staff photo by Sue Loughlin
How to help: Lisa Stepro, Team of Mercy volunteer/ambassador, provides suicide prevention training to staff at North Central Junior-Senior High School. Staff photo by Sue Loughlin
Staff at North Central Junior/Senior High School in Farmersburg listened intently as Team of Mercy representative Lisa Stepro talked to them about the warning signs for suicide and how to respond.

Most people who feel suicidal do not actually want to die, she told them. “They want the pain to stop.”

She discussed warning signs as well as risk and environmental factors. Stepro also went over how to talk to students who are at risk and how to directly ask the question: “Are you thinking about taking your life?” Stepro, Team of Mercy’s volunteer “ambassador” in Sullivan County, is herself a survivor; her fiance died by suicide in 2019. “It’s very personal to me now,” she said. She was presenting QPR, which stands for Question, Persuade and Refer, an evidence-based training program for suicide prevention.

Team of Mercy uses different curriculum for school staff and students, said Christina Crist, the agency’s executive director. “Right now, we are really concentrating on our youth, since suicide is the second leading cause of death for those ages 14 to 35 in Indiana,” she said.

Recently, training took place for 10 students at Terre Haute North Vigo High School. Earlier this year, Team of Mercy also trained in QPR with some West Vigo High School students. At one point during Monday’s training, Stepro told school staff, “Some of you here are a student’s lifeline.”

School principal Nancy Liston said she’s worried about students during the summer, when they won’t have daily interaction with staff.

In an interview, Liston explained that suicide prevention training is especially important to the school this year.

“We had a student die by suicide this year,” Liston said. “We’ve had a lot of students with a lot of anxiety and depression.”

After the high school freshman died by suicide, school staff worried it could happen again and they wanted training from Team of Mercy.

“They need to know what to watch for, how to talk to students and how to try to keep it from happening again,” Liston said. “We don’t want to miss something. You have to take every one of them so serious because you don’t know if they are serious.”

She added, “We see more and more — it seems like almost on a daily basis — of students that have thoughts of suicide and things like that. It’s scary.”

Liston believes a lot of it started during COVID, when kids were isolated from friends and parents may have had to work outside the home.

Also, “We live in an impoverished area, southwest Indiana,” and drug use is a problem in the area, Liston said.

“Their lives are tough and maybe they don’t have anyone else there for them,” Liston said. “We’re their lifelines. It worries me. I know so many of them that are having problems and anxiety and depression and a lot going on in their worlds.”

Camil Catlin, school counselor, shares Liston’s concerns.

“What I’m seeing is a lot of disconnect between students and their families. I honestly think, in addition to COVID, that technology use, social media, those surface- level relationships, are creating just a sense of isolation and loneliness,” Catlin said.

Students are spending too much time on cell phones and social media and not enough time interacting with others and community, she believes.

Also, “I do feel there is a sense of hopelessness a lot amongst our youth,” Catlin said.

They have a sense of fatalism. “They feel life is temporal and what’s the point anyway, and if I’m struggling this hard I might as well be done with it,” she said. “That’s a lot of what I hear from the students; they just really feel lonely, and exhausted, from just life’s troubles.”

In addition, today’s students “aren’t learning how to cope with tough stuff,” she said.

Schools teach coping skills starting in elementary grades, “but they’re not absorbing that,” Catlin said. “We’re seeing that in their parents. They’re not seeing parents who know how to cope and they’re not learning those solid strategies themselves.”

School staff hope to work with students on coping skills before summer vacation.

According to Crist, “I don’t think it’s a secret we’re in a mental health crisis nationwide. So it is very important to educate individuals and communities to open up the conversation.”

Crist continues to emphasize, “We need to make it okay to talk about mental health. We need to make it okay to say the word suicide — because in fact we are losing an alarming rate of individuals by suicide.”

While putting a stop to all suicides is unlikely, “It doesn’t have to be the second leading cause of death” for those ages 14 to 35 in Indiana, Crist said. Team of Mercy now has two volunteer “ambassadors” serving Vigo and Sullivan counties who can provide QPR training. Soon, an ambassador in Greene County also will offer training.

“We’re branching out. We’re growing,” Crist said.
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