Student's death prompts Lisle leaders to try to prevent others
The self-inflicted death last fall of a high school student from their town convinced Lisle-area officials it was time to take action.
The student wasn't the first from his school to die in such a manner, but this particular case shocked many leaders and forced them to seek answers to unpleasant questions.
"We literally said, 'We need to do something,'" Lisle Township Supervisor Mary Jo Mullen said, recalling a conversation she had last fall with village Trustee Marie Hasse. "Well, we're elected," Mullen said she told Hasse. "Now we can."
The duo originally planned a one-time symposium about issues facing area young people, but the idea grew into something with more staying power.
In response, the townships of Lisle, Downers Grove and Naperville have created the Youth in Crisis Coalition, which meets monthly to coordinate, link and disseminate resources already available to help teens.
The coalition's end goal is a youth population with zero self-inflicted deaths. But its more immediate aim is to "disrupt the journey to suicide," said Sarah Breithaupt, director of youth and family services for Lisle Township.
In DuPage County, officials say that journey has been taken all too often.
The county recorded three such teen deaths in 2014 and 10 in 2015, then three again in 2016 and 10 again in 2017. Coroner Rich Jorgensen's office says there have been two so far this year for a total of 28 in roughly the past five years.
"That's not a trend you can sit by and allow to continue," Mullen said.
Other suburban counties are facing the same problem, though in smaller numbers than in DuPage.
In McHenry County, one teenager died by suicide each year in 2014, 2016 and 2017, with four reported in 2015, but none so far this year, Coroner Anne Majewski said.
In Kane County, there have been 17 such deaths since 2014, with a high of six in 2017,
according to Coroner Rob Russell's office.
Lake County totals peaked at six each year in fiscal 2014 and 2015, contributing to a total of 19 since December 2013.
Will County has seen a total of 12 since 2014, according to Coroner Patrick O'Neil's office, peaking at four in 2015.
Cook County, meanwhile, has seen 92 since September 2014, according to medical examiner's office data, but the vast majority occurred in Chicago.
Knowing the family of more than one student who died changed the game for Lisle's Hasse.
"It really hit home," she said. "We had to address it in some way."
The coalition is bringing together mental health-focused professionals from schools, the county health department, counseling services and nonprofit organizations to better understand the ways each group is equipped to help teens address mental crises and get well.
Vince Walsh-Rock, assistant principal for counseling and student support services at Downers Grove South High School, said the value of such connections is in being able to put forward a consistent message about assistive programs, such as family support groups from the National Alliance on Mental Illness' branch in DuPage County or the Crisis Text Line available in the area by texting "reach" to 741741.
"I've appreciated knowing what's going on around the community," he said. "Knowing that the resources are out there and that we can build on each other's resource knowledge, I think would be really helpful."
Connections themselves are an important protective factor, he said.
"People who are having thoughts ... often are feeling disconnected from their support networks," Walsh-Rock said. "It's something we intentionally try to focus on in high school to make sure all students are connected in some way."
Connecting in the new coalition are representatives of the DuPage County Health Department, the National Alliance on Mental Illness in DuPage, Linden Oaks Behavioral Health and Edgewood Clinical Services in Naperville, a parenting group about raising resilient children that meets in Downers Grove, the organizers of the Ben's Memorial Mile fundraiser in Downers Grove for suicide prevention and schizophrenia research, The Community House counseling center in Hinsdale, Downers Grove High School District 99 and township and municipal elected officials.
Each month, the leaders choose a topic and share information about it on the coalition website, https://www.itonlytakesone.org/. Upcoming topics include trauma and stressors; social interactions and going back to school; resiliency and relationships; prevention measures; mental health supports and mental health crisis management.
"We want this to be long-term," Mullen said. "So it's baby steps."
September looks to be a bigger step, when at nearly a year old, the group plans to conduct a larger awareness push. The campaign will coincide with students' return to school and the national observance of Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.
"We want to reduce the stigma," said coalition member Jordan Esser, who heads the Prevention Leadership Team as community initiatives coordinator for the DuPage County Health Department. "There's no face of mental health. It can affect everyone."
• If you or a loved one are in crisis, visit the nearest emergency room or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Suicide prevention resourcesMembers of the Youth in Crisis Coalition in Downers Grove, Lisle and Naperville townships are coordinating area resources to help prevent student suicide deaths. Here are examples of some available supports:
• Crisis Text Line: Text "reach" to 741741 or visit https://www.crisistextline.org/ to connect with a volunteer trained to offer short-term support, ask questions to help texters set goals and guide texters to online resources for continued help.
• National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call (800) 273-8255 or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org for free, confidential support from a network of local crisis centers with professional staff and trained volunteers.
• DuPage County Health Department Crisis Intervention Unit: Call (630) 627-1700 to connect with 24-hour support including a residential respite facility for crisis stabilization.
• Mental Health First Aid: Visit https://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/take-a-course/find-a-course/ to find upcoming trainings to identify the signs of a mental health crisis and take action to provide help.
• National Alliance on Mental Illness: Several suburban NAMI branches offer family support groups for relatives of people with mental health conditions; visit https://www.nami.org/Find-Support for nearby options.
• NAMI DuPage Living Room: An alternative to the emergency room for adults ages 18 and older during mental health crisis; open 3 to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday at 115 N. County Farm Road in Wheaton. Call (630) 752-0066 or visit http://namidupage.org/resources/living-room/
• ParentsMatterToo: Offers an "Ask the Expert" video series with information about mental health topics, online parenting resources and parent conversation circles. Visit https://parentsmattertoo.org/.