Considering the Youth

 Town Hall on Suicide – Part 2
From March 27, 2017
 The Community Discussion



o   How early do we start talking? What age is right?
o   When they ask.
o   By the time they are in 6th grade ask “Have you felt like that? What would you do?”

Existing Programs - Youth
o   Schools – contact the principal
o   Live, Laugh, Love at GHHS
o   Be.nice
o   OK to Say cell phone app to report concerns in Michigan and have someone go to the school
o   YMCA
o   Regional Youth Group
o   Building Resilient Youth
o   Training in Mental Health First Aid
o   Community Mental Health
o   TCM Counseling
o   Suicide prevention hotline 800.273.8255
o   Suicide prevention text hotline 741741

Needs – Youth
o   Trauma Informed Care – the earlier the better
o   Coping skills – resiliency
o   Connection to other kids
o   Parent support group
o   Use Social Media for positive
o   Transparency when there is a suicide – end the silence
o   "Postvention" reaction – protocol for after a suicide
o   Comprehensive sex education



Town Hall Meeting on Suicide: Part 2

And so our topic today goes to the heart of an epidemic in our culture and our community. One that rips a hole in the fabric of so many lives and always – always – leaves too many questions unanswered.

What is the size and scope of the problem?

According to a New York Times article from April this past year, the US suicide rate has surged to a 30-year high. The American Foundation for the Prevention of Suicide reports that Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US and the leading cause of death for young people ages 10 to 14.

Almost 43,000 Americans die by suicide – that adds up to 121 people taking their lives every single day.
For every completed suicide, 25 attempt suicide.

And they remind us that while this data is the most accurate available, they estimate the actual numbers to be higher. “Stigma surrounding suicide leads to under-reporting, and data collection methods critical to suicide prevention need to be improved.”


Here in the Tri-Cities, we have also seen an unprecedented rise in suicides.
The latest Ottawa County Youth Assessment Survey (2014) confirms that depression and thoughts of suicide have reached an all-time high.

26 percent of teens reported being depressed in the past year. That equals about 6,400 youth between the ages of 13 and 18.

17 percent of teens reported that they had thought about attempting suicide and 12 percent had made a plan to carry it out.

7 percent said they tried to kill themselves at least once in the past 12 months.

Our young people are talking about it, they are trying it, and they are completing it.

So are our veterans. Every day, 22 veterans take their own lives. It turns out that overall suicide rates are up 56% in 15 years and still rising in almost every demographic you can define, including those who are over 85 years old.

In all, a suicide attempt occurs some place in this country every single minute.

And every 15 minutes, one of those attempts is completed. What does it mean that so many people in our society and in our own neighborhoods are taking their lives?

The easy answer is hopelessness. But when we delve deeper, when we ask the really hard questions, we find there are no easy answers. While suicide is often viewed as a response to a single stressful event, it is far more complicated than that. Suicide results from complex biological, psychological, social, and environmental interactions. Each story, like each individual, is unique.

Suicide cries of the tragic brokenness of life: that while we believe life is essentially good, there are times for some of us when to live is to be in hell, to know a torment that has no hope. As human beings, we can’t ignore, reject, or shy away from those who despair of life. Instead, we have a responsibility to protect and promote life, to be an agent of hope in the midst of suffering, and to act in love toward those who are troubled. That’s why we’re here tonight holding a second Town Hall Meeting on Suicide. To learn what that means and how we can all do it better. And to break through the silence.

Because so often we aren’t even aware of the suffering. People hide their pain and their loss because of stigma and shame. And that stigma is sticky. It attaches itself not only to those who consider suicide, but also to those who are left behind – the survivors of suicide – along with a complex combination of guilt, blame and fear.

Because of stigma, suicide is rarely discussed. And that makes even talking about thoughts of suicide very difficult. The fact that we can’t talk about suicide may well be one of the greatest barriers to preventing its tragic outcome. So let’s be clear. This is not a discussion that involves us and them. We have all been impacted by suicide in one way or another, just as we are all affected by mental illness in one way or another.

                  Which brings me to the need to clear up a misperception…

We hold town halls because we believe we need to normalize the conversation. When I can tell you my story of mental illness and a choice to live and the tragedy of my best friend’s suicide – then I create a space in which you just might be willing to share your story with me or with someone who hasn’t dared to share their story with anyone yet. And when people open up to us, we want and need to know how to respond.

Which is why we offer QPR Training before our Town Hall Meetings. TCM Counseling and others have been actively working to provide QPR Training throughout the community. QPR stands for Question, Persuade and Respond. It is suicide prevention training. It only takes an hour and there is no cost.

Community Mental Health offers Mental Health First Aid Training. This training takes place in 2 4-hour segments (8 hours altogether). I encourage every single one of us to take advantage of these opportunities to equip ourselves to intervene in the hope that we might help save a life.

Suicide devastates individuals, families, and communities. And those feelings are only compounded by the fact that people don’t talk about suicide. Too often it becomes a family problem, a personal secret, something shrouded in stigma and shame.

Hence the need for us to have this important conversation and to find the courage to confront what we would often rather ignore. The need to listen, to learn, to offer a lifeline and to be willing to take hold of a lifeline when it’s offered to us. Our lives depend on it.

Responding to Addiction: An Inspire!/Deeper Dive Conversation

As we tried to talk about creating better outcomes when it comes to addiction, it quickly became clear that “better outcomes” needed more definition. What kinds of outcomes are we talking about and for whom?

For the individual, a good outcome is any positive change as he or she defines it. For instance, determining to use a new syringe every time or resolving not to drive while drinking are both better outcomes than before.

For a community, better outcomes might mean that services are available in a timely fashion, that there are no deaths by overdose, or that people with a history of addiction are able to find stable employment. Families may define positive outcomes as the resolution of a conflict or healthier family dynamics.

However we define outcomes in the area of addiction, we can probably all agree that harm reduction and human connection are always good steps that are more apt to lead to positive outcomes for everyone.

How do we get there? Prevention is one focus. We agreed that early elementary education is helpful, but so often those messages are lost as one enters their high school years. We wondered if more education regarding the consequences of a criminal record or the risk of dying from carfentenyl (often laced with heroine) might have an impact on at risk youth.

Once someone hits rock bottom, there are resources such as sobriety court and hospitalization. But there is little in between prevention and the end of line. What can we do for people who are using and in the process of decline or who are beginning to ask questions about their own level of use and possible addiction?

We can…

·         Observe and talk about what we see. Don’t be silent about your concerns.

·         Offer workshops on having difficult conversations.

·         Start a Parent Support Group for parents who know things are not quite right but don’t know if they are really dealing with addiction, mental illness, or typical teen behavior.

·         Develop a community education series on addiction that offers people the opportunity to attend on a drop in basis to regularly scheduled classes.


If you want to be more involved in these solutions, contact me at


Barbara Lee VanHorssen,


My Husband's One True Love

Linda Bengston shared her writing with us at our Inspire! Event on Addiction, which had a deep impact on many of the participants there. Many had asked for a copy, and Linda has allowed us to share. 


My Husband’s One True Love

My husband says he loves me and I believe he does. But I am not his One True Love. I am not the love he cannot endure the thought of living life without. My husband’s One True Love is androgynous, genderless. It has many shapes and personalities. And while my husband occasionally ignores it a few days at a time, he always wants it and always returns to it.

My husband’s One True Love (OTL) is Siren-like with many faces and many personalities. He loves them all, some more than others and at some times more than other times. But he loves them all unconditionally and under any circumstances.

Sometimes my husband’s OTL is tall and graceful with gently rounded shoulders, clear complexion, and bubbling personality. Sometimes it is tall with squared shoulders and a personality strong and powerful. Sometimes it is square and squat with a complexion like sunlight through amber and a scent that exudes promise. Sometimes it arrives in multiples – clones. These clones are sometimes stubby and round, and he loves them most on hot summer days. Sometimes they are mid-size with fruity personalities. He loves them as well. Sometimes their personalities are dry and sophisticated. He savors them.

My husband and his OTL are frequently together – watching TV, reading, working in the yard, driving on errands. Nearly any time is a good time for their special camaraderie. When my husband can’t sleep and is up in the middle of the night, he turns for comfort to his One True Love. Often, OTL is nearby when he goes to bed at night, the last thing his lips touch before he sleeps. He does little without One True Love close at hand.

Sometimes my husband holds his One True Love close, embracing its clear, unique essence only for himself. Other times, he shares it with coffee, Diet Coke, 7-Up, Gatorade, orange juice, tomato juice, V-8. He and his One True Love are simply quite happy together under any circumstances.

But OTL has a dangerous side, one my husband either misunderstands or chooses to ignore. OTL can interfere with the medication that helps to regulate my husband’s blood pressure. It can do the same with other medications important to his health. It causes sleeplessness – perhaps, I sometimes think, out of selfishness so my husband will then be drawn to it for comfort. OTL can cause social and relationship difficulties because it encourages anger, petulance, defensiveness, belligerence. Perhaps, I think, OTL is jealous. If OTL strains my husband’s relationships, then he will have fewer distractions from it. OTL encourages my husband to say – and write – painful, hurtful things that cannot be undone and are best left uncommunicated.

My husband knows I know about his One True Love. I have tried to talk with him about it, but he refuses, even denies and ignores. Frequently, he tries to hide it from me, often shielding OTL from my sight as he walks past. Sometimes he leaves OTL in the garage or his car, but he checks frequently to engage with it and to make certain all is well and it is waiting patiently for him. Only when the time is right – or I am otherwise occupied – does he bring it inside where they can be comfortably together.

I have begun to reach an odd kind of acceptance of my husband’s One True Love. When I first discovered the relationship, I thought it was temporary and I was patient. When I realized it was a permanent part of my husband’s life, I felt angry that I, we, our marriage, our life, his health were less important to him than OTL. I finally came to the painful realization that his many pronouncements of my great importance in his life were just that – pronouncements. And I came to realize that OTL is as essential to my husband’s life as the air he breathes.

While my husband loves me, I know he does not love me most. Most of the time I no longer feel angry about that. I feel deeply sad. I miss what we once had and what could be. And I feel fear. I fear that one day OTL will not only gain total control over my husband’s life but that it will end his life.

If that happens, I hope his One True Love brings him comfort in the end.


Addiction: A Community Response

This is a heartbreaking topic and it has touched our community too closely and too often. The Friday night before Christmas, my son found his roommate lying lifeless on the bathroom floor. His friend and our music leader, Rich, had died of a heroine overdose.

At our first Inspire! event, Doug played a critical role in helping us set up, stuff brochures, and tear everything back down. Before our next Inspire! event, he indulged in his own drug of choice – alcohol – and in that state fell from a ladder in an accident that ended his life.

These losses have caused so much pain and so much soul searching among those of us that knew and loved these men. There is nothing we can do to change these outcomes and there are questions that will never be answered.

Addiction is a condition that results when a person takes in a substance (e.g., alcohol, cocaine, nicotine) or engages in an activity (e.g., gambling, sex, shopping) that can be pleasurable, but instead becomes compulsive, interfering with ordinary responsibilities and concerns, such as work, relationships, or health. People who have developed an addiction may not be aware that their behavior is out of control and causing problems for themselves and others.


Addiction is a coping mechanism. When something is going that is stressful, we react. We do something to try to relieve that stress. All of us. Everyone of us is addicted to something that takes the pain away. Sometimes we become workaholics, we escape into Facebook, we eat chocolate. Or maybe we seek out therapy, we take up a hobby, we change a job, we smoke a cigarette, have a drink, take a pill. And sometimes the choices we make become addictions.

Our response to addiction in general has been both shame based and punitive. Consequently, it has been ineffective. It’s important to realize that addiction isn’t just a search for pleasure. Nor is it a reflection of one’s moral character.

Recent studies are challenging our understanding of addiction and presenting new pathways for recovery.

We used to look at addiction as something that happens entirely in the brain – that when we use substances, chemical reactions happen that end up rerouting the circuits. Some people are more prone to addiction and get hooked faster than others.

We believed this because studies with rats showed that if you give a rat two bottles of water – one plain and one laced with drugs – the rat will ignore the regular water and drink the drug water until they are dead – which happens pretty quickly.

But Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander had another theory. He thought addiction was about living conditions rather than the properties of the drug itself.  So to see if he was right, he created Rat Park.  Rat Park was 200 times the size of a standard laboratory cage. There were 16–20 rats of both sexes in residence, food, balls and wheels for play, and enough space for mating.

When rats had something to do, they almost never used the drug water – and they never overdosed. Not once.

This would imply that at least part of addiction is about environment. In Johann Hari’s 2015 TED Talk he suggests that we call addiction “bonding.” He points out that we all have an innate need to bond. Usually we bond with people. But if we can’t do that because of our own trauma or circumstances that have overwhelmed us, we will bond with something else – pornography, alcohol, etc. He believes that the biggest problem is not being able to be present in your own life.

So when people most need to make connections with other human beings, our society is most likely to punish, shame, and put more barriers between people and the possibilities of reconnecting. We make it worse.

In 2000, Portugal’s drug problem was out of control. So they did something completely new. They decriminalized everything AND they also took all the money they had been spending on disconnecting addicts and spent it on reconnecting them with society. And addiction significantly decreased.

Today, a lack of connection may well explain why people are getting addicted to smart phones and social media. Our homes are getting bigger and our circle of friends is getting smaller. The connections we think we have are a parody of real connections. Ours is one of the loneliest cultures ever. If you have a problem, it won’t be your Twitter followers that help you out. It will be the people you look in the eye.

Now there is also a physical component to chemical addiction. Withdrawal can be excruciating and the rewiring of neural pathways can make the craving for an addictive substance feel like a matter of life or death.

But research is telling us that addiction is not just about individual recovery – it’s also about community recovery.  Which means our role in the life of an addict is not to tell them we’ll love them when they stop using, but to tell them we love them now and we don’t want them to be alone.

That doesn’t mean we sanction abuse and bad behavior. Addicts can be abusive. They can be destructive. They can damage those who try to help them. So we need to set boundaries and define the behavior we will and will not tolerate. Loving other people does not mean enabling them and we should never compromise our own safety.

But once safety is ensured, we can best end addiction not with wars against drugs or threats about behaviors, but with love. As Hari so beautifully concludes,

“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is human connection.”

Ten Easy Ways to Celebrate ALL Love

Our February Inspire! and Deeper Dive events Celebrated ALL Love. Please help us create a safer space for everyone. Here are some of the ways you can help combat heterosexual privilege:

1) Support organizations that do this work
2) Display Human Equality stickers
3) Speak out and name the injustice you see and hear
4) Hold businesses accountable
5) Get involved in government decisions starting at the City Council level
6) Ask candidates about their position and support candidates who support equality
7) Educate youth (and reach their parents, too)
8) Respect others by avoiding labels and using inclusive language, i.e. it’s not Gay Marriage, it’s just Marriage; refer to your spouse rather than your husband or wife
9) understand that 20 minutes of sincere conversation CAN produce change
10) Work to address building codes for bathrooms and other city ordinance changes - start with the city of GH and use success to leverage other municipalities

Watch the movie "Bridegroom"
Laugh at the Youtube video "Bathroom Cop"
Let us know you're interested in working on an inclusivity event in the summer in tangent with Holland Pride

Celebrating ALL Love

I am grateful to my mother for all the things she taught me. I am grateful to my fifth grade homeroom teacher, my seventh grade English teacher and my high school media production teacher. But some of the most important lessons, the most interesting and discussion-worthy lessons I ever received came from another source. For teaching me the things no one else wanted to talk about or even knew how to talk about, for discussing them with compassion and honesty and frankness, for keeping a sense of humor while providing me with profound insights, for all of that and more I am grateful to

… Phil Donohue.


Long before talk shows became a series of loud, embarrassing family fights and blatant attempts to shame and humiliate guests and studio audience participants, Phil was exploring the nooks and crannies in our society no one else seemed to be giving any attention. Did he ever exploit people? Did he sometimes work the ratings? I’m sure he did. Maybe you never liked Phil, yourself. But to me, as a kid just trying to figure out her own identity, Phil Donohue always seemed sincere and genuine. He cared about people, and he introduced me to a whole lot of people I learned to care about, too.

It was Phil who talked to gay men, and lesbian women, and people who were having operations to change from one physical gender to another. He didn’t talk about them. He didn’t talk down to them. He talked with them about their realities – and he listened. And in doing that, he taught me to listen. It is in listening to the real stories of real people that I have learned so much and have felt so much and have grown so much.

Mostly I’ve learned that I live as a privileged human being in our society. I am privileged because I am straight and I am cis-gendered, meaning that I identify with the gender that my physical body presents. My heterosexual and cis-gender privilege started before I was even born.

In the United States, privilege is granted to people who have membership in one or more of these social identity groups:

•  White people;
•  Able-bodied people;
•  Heterosexuals;
•  Males;
•  Christians;
•  Middle class people;
•  Middle-aged people;
•  English-speaking people

When we know a baby is on the way, what’s the big question?
Is it a boy or a girl? Do you know? Are you going to find out? Or are you going to wait and be surprised?
Because that little, tiny piece of information unlocks the entire future.

Privilege is usually invisible to the people who have it. People in dominant groups often believe that they have earned the privileges that they enjoy or that everyone could have access to these privileges if only they worked to earn them. In fact, privileges are unearned and they are granted to people in the dominant groups whether they want those privileges or not.

Boy or Girl goes way beyond what color I am going to paint the nursery. It also tells me what clothes I am going to dress my child in, what toys I am going to buy for them, and how I am going to refer to them. It gives me a good idea of what kinds of activities they will be involved in, what kind of career they might follow, what life transitions they will face.

Perhaps most importantly, it tells me how I will relate to my child. What kind of relationship I can expect over the years and what role will I play in their life in the years to come. The sex of my child ultimately becomes something very personal about me – because my role is different if I am the mother or father of a boy than if I am the mother or father of a girl.

And usually – even though we are all unique and we all bring unique twists to our relationships – those assumptions play out pretty much the way we expect them to. That is heterosexual and cis-gender privilege.

I’m guessing that I wasn’t the only one raised in this room with the teaching, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” What an incredibly destructive teaching. To condone hating on one hand and to label people as sinful on the other.

When I was doing campus ministry at our Muskegon Community College, I met with a professor of philosophy. The college had recently been in the news for refusing to allow a drag show to take place on its campus. The professor welcomed me and told me he hoped my presence would have a positive impact. He shared with me that in the past year, a young student of his had come out as gay to his Christian parents. They responded to his disclosure by telling him he “should kill himself.” He did.


The LGBT community has far too often been the victim of violence – both physical violence and spiritual violence. Too often anti-gay rhetoric masquerades as a message of God’s love and the power to overcome obstacles, giving rise to self-hatred and encouraging intolerance. When people arm themselves with the weapon of misinformation that perpetuates intolerance and preserves heterosexual privilege, the fruits of their labor are suffering, self-hatred and wasted gifts.

You know, as a heterosexual, I had the privilege of never having my own sexuality questioned. I also never had anyone reduce me to a sexual act or ask me how I “do” it and I never had to “come out” and announce my sexuality to anyone. I also never had to live with internalized homophobia that would make me question whether every person’s reaction to me had something to do with my sexuality.

One of the saddest stories I lived through was when a gay couple stopped coming to Extended Grace. When I reached out after a few weeks, I learned that one of the men had been refused a hug by a young college women. He felt she was rejecting him because he was openly gay. What he didn’t know was that she had been raped on her college campus while walking home at night earlier that week. She wasn’t letting anyone hug her. A heterosexist, homophobic society conditions human beings to expect rejection even where that rejection doesn’t exist. And when that happens – everyone is hurt.

I know I have become more and more aware of my heterosexual privilege and I invite you who share my privilege to do so, too. Think about what the world would be like if we would all live as our most authentic self. Then work for a world in which everyone is free to be fully who they are. 

Town Hall Meeting on Suicide

Town Hall Meeting on Suicide
Grand Haven Community Center
January 9, 2017

The meeting was opened promptly at 6:30 p.m. by Barbara Lee VanHorssen, Experi-Mentor of Extended Grace, a non-profit, grass-roots social lab that builds community while solving problems. About 75 people attended the meeting.

This is the fourth Town Hall meeting on mental illness topics. The meeting is co-hosted by Extended Grace, Grand Haven Public Schools, Ottawa County, North Ottawa Community Healthcare System (NOCHS), and the City of Grand Haven. The League of Women Voters sponsored the refreshments that came from Aldea Coffee and Grand Finale Deserts. The LWV has a health position statement that includes mental health.

Barbara presented the agenda for the evening and introduced the first group of panelists:
Sandi Stasko, Community Mental Health (CMH)
Brent VanTol, Pine Rest
Michael Pyne, Grand Haven Cares
Mark Bennett, Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department
Jeff Elhart, Survivor
Sean Huntington, Depression Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA)

Sandi Stasko’s remarks:
- Program coordinator for outpatient services, works with suicide prevention efforts
- Adverse Child Experiences Study (ACES) is an ongoing study of how childhood experiences affect us, including abuse, neglect, violence, substance abuse, mental illness, divorce, separation, bullying, witnessing violence, witnessing sibling abuse, racism, sexism, homelessness, natural disasters. Can affect mental and physical health, may have multiple negative effects such as lessening stress tolerance, disease, inability to make decisions, inability to communicate, creating a state of constantly being “on alert.” Physical effects may include a higher respiratory rate, faster heartbeat. How to combat this? Resiliency, helped by safety and bonding, helping people bounce back, is a very individual process. Some are helped by faith, positive perception, facing fears, journaling (especially the good things), learning to love ourselves.
- A simple exercise to reduce heart rate: place hand on heart or hug yourself for 30 seconds. Find humor. Meditate. Find out what works for you.

Brent VanTol’s remarks:
- Psychologist for Pine Rest – works in an office with people who have the intention of suicide and sometimes plans for suicide
- Suicide rates are increasing. Different demographics are increasing more than others, such as youth, Native Americans, and other ethnic groups.
- Suicide affects a lot of different demographics. Where do we put our resources?
- We need to talk openly about this subject. This is important because we need to reduce the stigma of suicide and of mental illness in general; we need to make it easier for people to talk about.
- Why the increase? Numerous causes are contributing. It is much easier to obtain a gun. Opiates are much more prevalent, with younger and younger people getting access to them. Social media puts unkind and stressful pressure on kids.
- We need to discuss what helps each person on an individual level.
- “How do I talk to someone about the subject of suicide?” If you can talk about it to your kids, it will make it easier for your kids to talk to their friends about it.

- As adults, we need to know how to enhance protective factors. We need to know how to refer people to help. We need to understand the scope of the problem on an individual level – how to help and also manage our own feelings.
- See newsletter “The Mighty” for frank discussions on mental illness and suicide.

Michael Pyne’s remarks:
- 30 years of social work, chair of a group for suicide prevention, also participates in a group that studies suicide data to try to identify patterns of behavior
- A very difficult topic that touches everyone
- Data back to 1980 shows an increase in youth deaths
- 43,000 people die every year in the U.S. – as many as breast cancer
- For ages 10 to 14, it is now the leading cause of death – up 56% in 15 years and still on the increase
- Rates among the elderly are also increasing, especially over age 85
- Much more research is needed. This is a major health concern! The ACES study is important.
- Important to understand that it is not a personality flaw or a personal weakness; it is a brain malfunction.
- Social media is a constant barrage of information, some of it terrifying.
- Communities need not fear talking about the subject.
- Why are more and more medications being prescribed?
- We need a sustainable program for prevention and should look at evidence-based programs such as those in place in Montreal and in the Air Force
- Upcoming is “Resilience Month” in Muskegon, with programs and meetings with youth-based groups and schools

Mark Bennett’s remarks:
- Works in Investigative Services, here to give law enforcement perspective
- In 30 years in Ottawa County, improvements have been seen in the ability to respond effectively to mental illness/suicide situations. Law enforcement is working on “putting the tools in the tool bag” for officers to help deal with them.
- Police are the first line of prevention, by learning to recognize warning signs
- Used to just react by putting people in jail
- Ottawa County Sheriff’s Dept. gets 70,000 calls a year for service of all types. About 1600 of those directly relate to mental health issues. Of those, about 350 are suicidal ideations and/or completed acts.
- Suicides must be investigated; technically, suicide is a crime. They have to examine the situation.
- Suicide notes are not common any more. Social media clues are more likely, and they look at internet searches done on related topics
- Ottawa County Sheriff’s Dept. strives to prevent suicide.

Jeff Elhart’s remarks:
- Jeff’s brother died after a long struggle with depression.
- Survivors will ask themselves “Why? How do I feel? What actions should I have taken?” but should try to reach a point where they have no guilt and no anger.
- Suggests viewing movie “Hope Bridge” about the anger of a teen over his brother’s suicide
- Jeff found comfort in writing down the reasons he felt guilty and about how he felt he let his brother down, and buried the writing with his brother’s ashes.
- Jeff met two local “angels” who are working to come up with prevention programs
- Memorial funds ($600k so far) have been opened to fund the “Be Nice” culture which reaches out to schools, with 50,000 students reached to date. Objective is to bring education to children and other people in general. Companies participating in training include Herman Miller, RW Baird, Freedom Village, churches, and local police departments.
- Mental illness and suicide are treatable and preventable.

Sean Huntington’s remarks:
- Self-described as a “card-carrying crazy person” diagnosed as bipolar, working on establishing a drop-in center to give access to care and peer support
- Perspectives on this issue are very different in different age groups
- Peers can reach out to each other in a way that “normal” people can’t – very important to people with depression, bipolar, mentally ill
- Often typical “support” can make things worse and can escalate things. Need non-judgmental support or “we can lose our voices.” When asked “What’s wrong? How can I help?” we don’t know the answers, will shrug and tell you to leave us alone…we know we are hurting you and it makes us feel even worse. It’s much easier to talk with peers who have had similar experiences. We lie to our therapists and hide the big issues, but not with our peers.
- Big need for QBR training. Best support is more like “You can talk to me about anything,” de-escalation, no pressure. WE need to make the decision to reach out and talk. There IS a way to reach us – and we’ll come to you when we are ready. WE have to make the choice to live.
- I have lots more to say about this: please read the blog on our Facebook pages. Peers can save lives.

At this point, Barbara opened the discussion to a question-and-answer period.

Q: If someone threatens suicide over and over again, why do they do that? Is it to get attention?
A: (Michael Pyne) It might be attention-seeking, but there is no clear answer, it is very complex. When the decision is finally made to live, it usually resolves itself. About 60% of people with mental health concerns are never treated, though mental illness is life-threatening and sometimes fatal. It is hard to live with and we need to focus on the disease and treatment.
A: (Brent VanTol) Always take it seriously, every time. Risk is high if they talk about it. “No great misery goes unspoken.” Don’t shy away. Ask. Acknowledge it is hard to explain how someone is feeling. Tell them you hear and understand.
A: (Sean Huntington) When you react, “why” is not relevant. Is the decision made? That’s how to save lives. Your reaction can escalate the feelings, when pain and hurt show on your face, and lock in the cycle of self-negative talk. Stop reacting. Non-judgmental listening will not make things worse. Just being there can be enough.

Q: What are the protective factors? 
A: (Sandi Stasko) Get a group going with non-judgmental listening. “Why” is irrelevant. We’ve lost the village supporting the family, that’s what we are building in this room. You have to find your own way back to the light – there is no set cure or treatment. When you ask someone how they are, mean it, and listen to the answer. Be the person who cares, in a non-judgmental way.
A: (Sean Huntington) You want to know how you “normals” can be more like our peers. It is more instinctive with us – but we can’t effectively communicate that. We perceive we are being judged; we feel judged and shamed and not understood by you. Please realize lots may be going on. Peers help because we don’t stigmatize each other. We have no cut-and-dried rules. When we have issues, don’t act like WE are doing something to YOU. We can’t reach out but don’t take it personally. Just say you are there; let us know we can reach out when we are ready.

Next:  Small group conversation at each table, sharing why people are there and what personal connection they have to suicide

7:50 to 8:00 – Break

Promptly at 8:00, Barbara introduced the second group of panelists:
Beth Egge, DBSA National Office
Sarah Lewakowski, TCM Counseling
Tracy Wilson, Grand Haven High School
Mike Gilchrist, Spring Lake High School
David Neal, NOCH Emergency Dept.

Beth Egge’s remarks:
- From National Office of DBSA, helps local organizations develop support groups. She had bipolar disorder herself. She is a certified peer-support therapist, working through CMH and general practitioners’ offices; over 1500 such therapists have been trained by the State of Michigan. She directed a drop-in center in Holland for three years.
- Michigan is a leading state in peer support and drop-in centers.
- Peers understand that it is hard to talk about experiences. A peer does not attempt to pull you out of the hole: what a peer can do is “climb down into the hole, and when you’re ready, I’ll help you get out.”
- It’s really hard to be honest and admit feeling fear, guilt, shame; admitting these things is losing control and risking your freedom. The biggest thing is getting brave enough to ask for help, an act of courage which deserves respect. What is needed is understanding, respect, encouragement, compassion, empathy.
- There are now support groups all over west Michigan. We help give those groups tools and support.
- “Recovery is very possible.”

Sarah Lewakowski’s remarks:
- Executive director of TCM, 40 years in the community. TCM does not turn anyone away who lives in this area and has served hundreds of people, many with suicidal ideation. TCM is now starting offices in Holland also.
- Suicide is an increasing concern. Lots of teenagers need help. TCM has removed financial barriers and does not turn anyone away, but transportation continued to be a problem, so they are sending therapists directly to schools and are now in 14 area schools. They try to present preventative programs for grades K though 12.
- Social media does not help at all. Middle school and high school programs are very hard to help. QPR training is helpful with dealing with this issue.
- Ask questions. Let them know they are noticed. Is it suicidal ideation or just depression?
- Programs should try to help reduce the stigma of asking for help.
- TCM has also started a survivors support group for families. They need to be with people who truly understand.
- “We have to make people feel they are NOT worthless and DO deserve to live.”

Tracy Wilson’s remarks:
- From Grand Haven High School. She lost her dad to suicide 20 years ago, and still feels there is a stigma about discussing it. The “why” was never answered. He felt he was a burden to his family. As a parent to three boys, she knows that the risk is higher because of their exposure to it. When they discussed it, she refers to him dying of mental health issues, as a disease.
- Since 2011, six students have been lost at GHHS, and dozens have attempted suicide.
- Since 2015, there has been this local initiative for systematic, sustainable prevention, with a focus on mental health. GHHS now trains every single employee on QPR, right down to the janitors and bus drivers. They haven’t trained every student because they feel it may be too much for them to handle.
- They received a grant from “100 or More Women who Care” to support QPR training and to date over 100 people have been trained. The curriculum includes programs to teens, counseling and assessment and referrals for students, age-appropriate curriculum, parent committee to help parents understand how to handle communications, giving kids and parents information, and a “Show Up” program (put down the phone and look people in the eye).

Mike Gilchrist remarks:
-From Spring Lake High School, now in his 28th year of working in education. No suicides at SLHS in his career, but there was one attempt and to this day he still feels guilty about not taking it seriously enough.
- “Suicide is epidemic.” It is now the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. with 121 people taking their lives every single day.
- A survey of Ottawa County students revealed that 26% admit to depression: they hate school, 17% consider suicide, and 12% have plans for suicide. 7% report attempting at least once.
- We push extra-curricular involvement as one preventative action.
- Parents are the first line of defense. They need information and the ability and tools to communicate effectively.
- ALWAYS take threats seriously. Twice he has jumped in his car late on Saturday nights and gone to the homes of students to talk to them after getting calls from concerned parents.
- It is really important to have counselors and liaison officers. Social culture is important – they have a “Whole Child” initiative program.
- They present a suicide prevention program once a month to students, on the second Tuesday. They do get some push-back from parents.
- Stress is the #1 cause. Pressure. Difficulty getting into college. “Bystanderism.” Social media is the worst thing that has ever happened to public schools and has changed public education significantly. Their programs really help about 1/3 of the students (others say they are not impacted or don’t care).
- Entire district is trained in QPR and the “Be Nice” program. Everyone! We have 850 students to impact.

David Neal remarks:
- From NOCH, social worker in the emergency department; past experience includes pre-marital and marital counseling, jail and prison counseling – has assessed thousands of suicidal people over the years
- Talked about a display at an art gallery which consisted of a shotgun aimed at a chair, with a time set to randomly go off some time in the next 100 years. People wanted to sit in the chair for a few minutes.
- Why the increase? We have forgotten what it feels like to be human.  People don’t read books and thus have no way to learn about the human emotions of others, feeling disconnected.
- When the economy turned down, crisis intervention went way up, especially children worried about their parents losing jobs
- Life is driven by the desire to find happiness, the ability to look back and feel satisfaction, that life has been worthwhile
- How to approach suicidal people? Plain, simple, direct – honest but not brutal, make them feel human
- NOCH now holds two weekly appointments times open specifically for emergency psychiatric counseling
- “Think about what it means to be human.”

Barbara opened up the session to Q & A from the audience.

Q: (from Sean) More of a comment – we host discussion groups on Facebook. Tonight one person posted, questioning their value to the planet. The response: “You are cherished.” Do not press them. One woman talked about her experience at NOCH after a self-cutting incident where she went too deep. She felt she was verbally stigmatized by the attending nurse, ”Why would you do this? Why am I treating you when you are just going to do it again?” This only makes things worse.  Check out peer support resources. Then a question directed to Beth: What do you think is the difference between professional support and peer support?
A: (Beth) Well, we both share our stories. In fact if you had told me years ago that sharing my story would help others, I would have laughed.  It’s about connection. It’s about finding something to share, to see that you are not alone. That you can get through it. It’s easy to get lost in your own thoughts and all you hear when you are miserable is “blah blah blah.”
Validation can be the most powerful thing. Just say “It must be awful to feel that way.”
Breaking the isolation is providing hope.

Q: A comment by a Spring Lake High School graduate – she deeply appreciates the personal concern and connection with her former teachers, and felt they really cared about her. She wanted to publically say thanks for all the encouragement over the years. “Teachers always asked how we were doing before the lessons started.” She also found great value in a class for empowering women, and the peer support there. “I had parents at home, but I also had 20 parents at school, and they know me and remember me.”

Barbara concluded the meeting by asking people to write any additional comments on a flip chart provided. She thanked all the sponsors again.

The meeting adjourned at 9:02.

- Notes recorded and submitted by Bobbi Jones Sabine,
Extended Grace Volunteer


Muskegon High School students build spirit with Mudita Gift

Students in Karli Baldus’s Muskegon High School broadcasting class wanted an activity that could help build community in their school. They had a plan; they just needed funding. That’s when Baldus applied to Extended Grace for a $500 Mudita Gift.

 (L-R) Barbara Lee Van Horssen, Extended Grace experi-mentor and executive director; Tyrique Chalk; Armontae Hendricks-Johnson; Charity McClanahan; Keyshawn Crowley; Karli Baldus; Bernard Loudermill, Muskegon High School dean of students.

(L-R) Barbara Lee Van Horssen, Extended Grace experi-mentor and executive director; Tyrique Chalk; Armontae Hendricks-Johnson; Charity McClanahan; Keyshawn Crowley; Karli Baldus; Bernard Loudermill, Muskegon High School dean of students.

The result? The Big Red Bash on March 15 through which broadcasting students hosted lunch, snacks, movies, and activities on a half day when students would not have received lunch provided at school and no activities were planned. 

“When I first learned about Mudita, I loved the idea of looking at ways to help the community and be a part of social change,” Baldus explained. “I brought the idea back to my students, and through this process, I’ve seen so many benefits from the Mudita Gift. My students were challenged to think about the difference they could make, they were a part of a big movement from the ground up, and they provided the opportunity for students to interact with each other outside of class and to enjoy a free event. But something I didn’t realize was all the connections that would be made with my class, within the school, and within and outside the Muskegon community. There is such a great power in building relationships.”

Apria Snodgrass agreed. “With many stigmas in Muskegon, this gave us an opportunity to get all our Big Red students together and prove others wrong. The Big Red Bash gave everyone their chance to come and have fun for free without the hassle of being sad because you couldn’t find money to pay for the party.”

Mudita is a Sanskrit word that means “I rejoice in your good fortune.” Barbara Lee, Extended Grace experi-mentor and executive director, describes the gift as a reminder that what any one person receives is a gift for all and that we need to live in an atmosphere of abundance and generosity rather than one of scarcity, competition, and fear.