Voices of Youth: Activists work to prevent youth suicide in Washtenaw County

Young local activists and their adult advocates are working to reduce the incidence and impact of suicide and suicidal ideation.
This article is part of Concentrate's Voices of Youth series, which features content created by Washtenaw County youth in partnership with Concentrate mentors, as well as feature stories by adult writers that examine issues of importance to local youth. In this installment, Concentrate writer Eric Gallippo examines the topic of youth suicide – an issue of importance raised in our listening sessions with local youth.

At age 17, Howell resident Kyle (last name withheld by request) was in a serious car accident that knocked him unconscious and put him in the hospital. After his discharge, rumors started circulating among his peers that he was abusing hard drugs, due to his dilated pupils caused by heavy pain medications. Kyle was already struggling with low self-esteem, partly from bouts of severe acne. He started withdrawing from friends and thinking about how he didn't want to live anymore.

"I had suicidal ideation every single day after my car accident," he says.

Today, Kyle is a college graduate and young professional who has shared his story of surviving attempted suicide and suicidal ideation with hundreds of young people in area schools and online meetings.

After realizing he was the only one of his high school friends who hadn't died by suicide or overdose, Kyle got involved with Washtenaw County's chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a nonprofit, grassroots mental health organization serving millions of Americans.

"I'm not saying my story's the end-all, be-all, but I definitely have the experience of those rough times and not really seeing the light at the end of the tunnel," Kyle says.
Kyle (last name withheld by request).
By sharing his own story, Kyle hopes his experiences and the lessons he's learned can help other struggling young people realize they aren't alone and seek the help they need. From supporting young people and their parents to advocating for safer firearm storage, Kyle, other young local activists, and their adult advocates work to reduce the incidence and impact of suicide and suicidal ideation.

"Stress can kill kids"

Kyle first learned about NAMI from his environmental science professor, Alison Paine, while taking one of her classes at Lansing Community College. Paine co-leads a NAMI - Washtenaw County support group for parents of young people struggling with suicidal ideation. That group, Parents Together, meets twice a month to discuss strategies, techniques, and resources for parents to support their children and themselves.

The group started about six years ago. Several years before that, Paine started a smaller, private group with some other moms when her then-young son began struggling. She was looking for a support group for herself, but couldn't find anything. Paine has also volunteered with NAMI's Ending the Silence presentation series for young people and other NAMI programming.

Her first message to schools and parents after all these years of listening? "School stress can kill kids." Especially for a child in crisis, Paine says it's critical to listen to youth, adjust expectations, and focus on getting them well, even if it means taking an extra year to graduate or dropping out and coming back to earn their GED later.

"If your child had cancer, you would do everything in your power to find the best possible treatments, to back off on schoolwork, to back off on expectations about sports and social stuff and everything else, and just do whatever that child wanted," she says. "It's the same with mental health."

For Kyle, that meant passing up an opportunity to attend the University of Michigan (U-M), his dream school, to earn his bachelor's degree from Cleary University. The small, private school was closer to home, where he could stay in better touch with his parents.

As an educator, Paine sympathizes with teachers who are under tremendous pressure to help students meet certain requirements. That's why she thinks teachers should not only be given mandatory mental health training to recognize when students are struggling, but also empowered to make concessions for students as needed.

Along with her cancer analogy, Paine underscores a second point: just because someone looks physically healthy doesn't mean they're mentally healthy.

"They don't have a temperature. They don't have a broken bone. If they go to the hospital for a week as an inpatient because they were suicidal or attempted suicide, it's not like they get treated for a broken leg and come back out fixed," she says. "This is an ongoing mental health challenge that needs a lot of work and time."

For LGBTQ+ youth, mental health issues are compounded by public policy that either doesn't protect them, or worse, makes them a target. Local gun violence activist Mikah Rector-Brooks, 20, recently changed their name to better match their identity as a transgender person. During the process, they learned that, according to Michigan law, it is required to publish the name change in a local paper, along with their previous, or dead, name. Describing the practice of forcing trans people to out themselves as "fundamentally messed up," they note that it can also lead to violence against those individuals.
Mikah Rector-Brooks.
"We have seen it through statistics, but just anecdotally within my own life, the community is heavily affected by mental health issues, especially as political extremism expands," Rector-Brooks says. "We've seen, especially, the trans community targeted again and again. It's not surprising that we see youth are really struggling with their mental health. I've seen that with my friends, too. We're having a hard time with it when we're constantly under threat from our political leaders."

Adding to these challenges is the process of finding a therapist, finding a psychiatrist to manage medications, and then finding the right medications, which can take several weeks to start working. Along with that can come confrontation, and isolation, as those in crisis can lash out at the people closest to them. In the case of young people, that often means their parents. Paine tries to help parents recognize this as something different from acting out or bad behavior. She encourages her group members to have a "BLT" — Breathe, Listen, and Think — when faced with these situations to avoid escalating them.

Following his own hospitalization for suicidal ideation, and eventual suicide attempt while there, Kyle wishes he could have had access to someone he could call on whenever he was struggling, similar to how recovering addicts work with sponsors who are available to them 24/7. Since good health care is prohibitively expensive for many people, he says more volunteer-led, cost-free support efforts are needed. 

For those with struggling with lingering thoughts of suicide, Kyle says the first step is to make it known.

"Just get it out into the open, and people will respond to that," he says.
Kyle (last name withheld by request).
When it comes to supporting those in crisis, Kyle says just having someone to listen and talk with made a huge difference for him. In his case, it was a nurse who would ask about the interests and hobbies that helped ground him and take his mind off of his struggles.

"Something to distract you from the present moment was extremely helpful," he says. "I'm not saying disregard what's happening. But just talking, just the simple conversation of what's going on [in] day-to-day life, or the hobbies you enjoy ... really helped me tremendously."

Kyle adds that starting such simple conversations is one easy way to support those who may be struggling with suicidal ideation.

"I always say, 'Say hello to everybody,'" he says. "If you're in the hallway, you never know what someone's going through."

"It's such a difficult issue"

While access to mental health care, adequate support, and reducing stress are critical to preventing youth suicide, Rector-Brooks notes that, for a young person — or anyone — in crisis, easy access to firearms exacerbates the problem. In the U.S., suicides account for over half of firearm deaths, and firearms recently became the leading cause of death for youth and teens.
Mikah Rector-Brooks.
"It's such a difficult issue when somebody isn't in a good place mentally, and they have [a firearm] sitting out in the open with ammo available just in their house, this weapon that can so quickly and so easily take their life," Rector-Brooks says. "It's a lot easier to go through with suicide when you have those options available to you. So targeting access to firearms is just a really key way to bring down the impact that suicide has on American children."

Rector-Brooks, a sophomore at U-M, got involved with the local chapter of March for our Lives a few years ago after a close friend died from suicide by firearm. Today, they help run the national press team for the youth-run gun violence awareness organization.

Curbing gun violence and the impact it has had on people's lives, including her own, is also what drove Celeste Kanpurwala to get involved with Washtenaw County's chapter of Moms Demand Action For Gun Safety and, more recently, to become co-facilitator of the Washtenaw Alive suicide prevention coalition. The collaborative group of representatives from local organizations focused on health care, children, and other community issues meets monthly to discuss ways to prevent suicide in Washtenaw County. 
Celeste Kanpurwala.
Since taking the role, Kanpurwala, 39, has been working to engage guest speakers to address the group on topics from suicide-related autopsies to how suicide is presented in local media. She's hopeful the group can start work on more concrete actions to help reduce the impact of suicide locally. For example, one member has suggested working to add barriers to U-M parking structures that would make it harder for people to jump from them. Kanpurwala is also proud of Ann Arbor Public Schools for including information from the national BeSMART Gun Safety campaign for responsible gun storage in its weekly newsletters to parents.

Kanpurwala's father died from suicide by firearm in 2014, and the trauma has led to her own struggles with suicidal ideation.

"My main message to parents is making sure that they have their pulse on what's going on with their children and also, very importantly, making sure that any lethal means are not accessible to their children," she says.

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.
All photos by Doug Coombe.

To learn more about Concentrate's Voices of Youth project and read other installments in the series, click here.
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