Aurora teacher's heartfelt lesson: Suicide is always preventable
Mary Kay Gleason doesn't usually tell her students her family's story of suicide loss so early in the school year.
They're only in seventh grade, so she wants to gauge their maturity. And with the loss so fresh, she's struggled to keep her emotions in check.
But this time, nearly three years after her daughter Kelsie took her own life at age 24, the teacher at Fischer Middle School in Aurora felt ready to speak sooner. And for good reason: The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says suicide was the second-leading cause of death statewide last year among people ages 10-14 and 15-34.
"That's you guys," school psychologist Jake Rebus told students.
Struck by so many young and preventable deaths, Gleason broached the subject less than a month into the school year. This week, all seventh-graders got a lesson from Rebus and school social worker Katey Kollereb, the mental health experts at the school, then gathered in their advisory classes to make bracelets and keychains in the suicide-prevention awareness colors of purple and teal.
Gleason said she made sure to include a prevention education session from professionals trained in mental health to avoid glamorizing such a serious subject as suicide. The students, she said, showed they understood.
"It's been so great to see so much support from students who are so young," Gleason said. "They have that empathy."
Gleason also wants teens to learn there's always something they can do to help.
She found her audience receptive to the message, which she is spreading in "baby steps" as she gets more accustomed to speaking about Kelsie's life, accomplishments and death.
This weekend, Gleason and her family will participate for the third time in the Out of the Darkness Chicagoland Walk for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. And next year, she will extend the suicide prevention lesson and activity to all students at Fischer, a step school mental health professionals say is vital because the subject isn't discussed enough.
Kelsie Gleason and her twin sister, Courtney, were the only children of Mary Kay and Robert Gleason. Kelsie was smart, kind and beautiful, a person who was all about helping others -- especially through her career goal of becoming a doctor and caring for those who otherwise couldn't afford it, her mother said.
While attending Naperville Central High School, Kelsie was treated for an eating disorder. She graduated in 2008 and headed to Illinois Wesleyan University, where she joined a sorority, double-majored in Spanish and biology, became a second lieutenant in the Air Force and kept her eating disorder in check.
She began medical school at Dartmouth in New Hampshire, but she couldn't find the support she needed on campus when added stress brought back her eating disorder. Gleason said Kelsie was in her second year of med school when she took her life.
Gleason wears a suicide-prevention ribbon on a lanyard with her school ID as one small memorial to her daughter. This year, curious students kept asking what the ribbon was for.
She decided to tell them -- and to tell the story of losing Kelsie.
'We've got to help'
One student, Emily Shanz of Aurora, was so moved she immediately hugged Gleason. She went home that night and, along with fellow seventh-grader Monica Vergara of Aurora, made enough purple-and-teal bracelets for everyone in their class.
"I thought it was really sad," Emily said. "And if Mrs. Gleason was sad, we've got to help her."
Emily's kindness inspired Gleason to expand the bracelet-making to all seventh-graders at Fischer and all students at Huntley Middle School, where Kelsie's twin Courtney teaches eighth grade.
Before getting creative, Fischer students learned ways to help classmates, along with suicide facts, risks, warning signs and prevention steps.
Students should look out for friends who are saying or posting negative things like "I hate everything," acting disengaged or abnormal, or are stuck in a sad, lonely, desperate or isolated mood, Rebus and Kollereb said.
When kids spot these symptoms, they should "ACT," or Acknowledge, Care and Tell: Acknowledge the person's concerns, give a response of care and tell a trusted adult.
This, Rebus said, "is what you guys can do to save lives."
Aside from telling an adult, students also can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or text the word "start" to 741741 to begin getting help for themselves or others.
Leaving Gleason's classroom, students donned their handmade bracelets and adorned their pencil bags or backpacks with suicide-prevention keychains.
"I feel the love," Gleason shouted above their chatter, brightening with a smile. "Thank you."