Youth suicide program helps try to answer questions for grieving community

      Dr. Greg Hudnall admitted that answers in regard to suicide aren’t easy to come by.

      “Suicide is very, very individualized,” said Hudnall, considered an expert in the youth suicide due to his work in Utah. “Correlations does not equal causation.”

      Hudnall equated understanding a person’s mental process to what people can see of an iceberg while on a ship.

      “We don’t see what’s underneath the water,” Hudnall said.

      But progress is being made on a nationwide front, as Hudnall explained Nov. 1 at a program at the Elkhorn Area High School auditorium.

Dr. Greg Hudnall

Hudnall’s appearance was arranged quickly following the death of an area teen from suicide in the last few weeks, as parents, students and staff worked to make sense of the sudden death.

      Hudnall discussed what has been learned about youth suicide – and also what hasn’t. He took about a half hour at the end of the program to answer questions from those in attendance, trying to provide guidance to a group that admitted some frustration and despair after the student’s death.

      While there are added pressures these days because of social media and increased expectations in school, Hudnall was quick to point out that mental health is something everyone is being forced to get an education on.

      “Depression is a disease, not a failure of will,” Hudnall said after being introduced to the small crowd.

      About 100 people came to the Elkhorn Area High School auditorium for the program, a mix of students and staff along with what appeared to be a large number of parents.

      He was also quick to point out that a solution will be found by working together.

      “This is not a school issue,” Hudnall explained. “This is a community and society issue. We have to have the courage to address this together.”

      Hudnall was a principal and associate superintendent in the Provo City School District in Utah. In those positions, he was forced to deal with several student suicides. He spoke at three of those students’ funerals, and after watching the entire community suffer, he began to pick up on some education – and also discover that there was a need to recruit help in finding students at risk.

      That led to Hudnall founding Hope4Utah, a community-based non-profit organization dedicated to suicide prevention and intervention. But after working with adults in the community, he discovered something was still missing.

      “We knew we needed to move from adults to young people,” he explaining, adding that youngsters often talk to their peers and not to adults.

      That led to the formation of the program known as Hope Squad – a peer-to-peer suicide prevention program. Hope Squad has expanded across the country, with more than 5,000 students referred for help. Students are nominated by classmates and staff members and trained to be peer advocates.

      Elkhorn started its program during the 2019-20 school year, and Senta Holmes – the Elkhorn Area School District Community resiliency coordinator – started in July 2020.

      She said Monday that Hudnall had a busy day meeting with the crisis team as well as both the EAHS and EAMS Hope Squad members and the staff at the high school.

      “He wanted to make sure to connect and hear the community’s questions,” Holmes said.

      Hope Squad works by using what is called the QPR method. That stands for question, persuade and refer, teaching people how to recognize signs of suicide contemplation and when to report to adults, as well as persuade people to seek professional help.

      Hudnall said youth often see more signs than adults. For example, one of the signs of suicide is a student giving away important personal possessions. If youngsters are trained to recognize that as a sign, they can report it to an adult. Students also often feel isolated or alone, and finding a peer who recognizes what they are going through can be a step forward.

      Hudnall mentioned that, in particular, some portions of the school populations find it more difficult than others. The Native American and LGBTQ communities see more youngsters attempt suicide, because of the message of rejection they often hear.

      Hudnall also said academic performance anxiety can be a contributing factor, as students feel the need to be perfect, and “believe love and affirmation is earned.”

      He added that students do need to learn how to fail, and parents need to balance the line between letting them make mistakes and helping them up afterward.

      “They need to learn to stand on their own, but have the support to figure it out,” he said.

      More often than not, though, there is likely a triggering event of some sort. Triggers can include a death of a close friend or family member, divorce or even being a survivor of someone else’s suicide. Warning signs can be changes in behavior, talking or writing about suicide, or ending close relationships.

      But even with that knowledge, Hudnall admitted that most people won’t try to commit suicide. He added that it’s a storm, of sorts, that eventually overwhelms a person’s ability to cope. He also said that young people seldom try suicide as a means for attention.

      “Young people don’t want to die,” he said. “They want to make the pain go away.”

      He stressed that parents have to feel free to ask the difficult questions – whether or not their son or daughter has contemplated suicide.

      “I’m giving you permission to ask your children,” he said.

      And while Hudnall may not have specific reasons for why youth suicide is an issue, he said there are some clear do’s and do not’s when approaching the situation.

      He said that people shouldn’t argue with a person having suicidal thoughts, act shocked or lecture. He also said that specific phrases like, “You don’t mean that,” “Things could be worse,” and “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” should all be avoided.

      “They want you to listen,” Hudnall said.

      What people should do is commit to being that safe person, remain calm, and listen. Encourage the person to keep talking and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Statements like, “How can I help?”, “You are not alone in this,” or simply, “I may not completely understand but I care” can and do help.

      Hudnall stressed the importance of students having downtime from their devices. He suggested parents take away the phones after 10 p.m., so students don’t feel forced to be the support system for all of their friends – and get a break from social media.

      “Kids need discipline,” he said. “They need to know limits.”

      After going through those details, Hudnall took questions from the audience. The questions ranged from how to address the difficulties the LGBTQ community faces – the person noted in particular that Walworth County is a difficult area for that.

      Hudnall stressed that Walworth County has resources – most of which were available at the presentation on two different tables. He urged parents to make use of those, to talk to their children and, most of all, to be part of a support system.

      Hudnall told parents to check out, a website that offers free answers to questions and videos that can be helpful in approaching teens.

      Holmes said Monday that Hudnall took on the tough questions, talked about the large number of influencing factors, and gave those in attendance an important sense of hope.

“He gives us permission to grow and move forward,” Holmes said. “Dr. Hudnall’s visit is one step for us to heal and to continue to heal is growing as a community and talk about suicide awareness.”

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