N.J. group offering support to address rising suicide deaths among youth

A New Jersey group is educating students about mental health issues to combat rising youth suicide incidents.

 Students at Millstone high school visit with an Attitudes in Reverse therapy dog. (Courtesy Attitudes in Reverse)

Students at Millstone high school visit with an Attitudes in Reverse therapy dog. (Courtesy Attitudes in Reverse)

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Content warning: This story contains mention of suicide.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. The hotline is staffed 24/7 by trained counselors who can offer free, confidential support. Spanish speakers can call 1-888-628-9454. People who are deaf or hard of hearing can call 1-800-799-4889.

Tricia Baker co-founded Attitudes in Reverse (AIR) in 2009 after her son, Kenny, who had been diagnosed with depression, died by suicide three weeks before his high school graduation. Kenny’s death made Baker realize that many teens struggle with mental health issues and that they are afraid to talk about it and seek help.

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“Mental illness is like air, just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there, it’s all around us,” she said.

According to the most recent CDC data, 94 youth ages 10 to 24 died by suicide in New Jersey in 2021. That’s the second leading cause of death among youth in that age range for the Garden State. The National Institute of Health reports 20% of children ages three to 17 have either a mental or a behavioral disorder. Between 2008 and 2020, suicide rates for children ages 12 to 17 increased by 16%, according to the institute.

Through AIR, an educational non-profit organization, Baker and her team are trying to provide support to struggling youth.

“We go into schools and we provide mental wellness education for students in kindergarten all the way through college,” she said. “We want young people to understand what these brain illnesses are, we want them to understand they are biological, that there is help available, and that there’s always people that are willing to listen.”

Children at Hopewell Valley Elementary school enjoy an AIR presentation with a therapy dog. (Courtesy Attitudes in Reverse)

Wendy Sefcik, chair of the New Jersey Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said conventional thinking until recently was that suicide should not be discussed with young people because it might increase the chance that they would kill themselves.

“But now we know that is not true,” she said. “We need to talk to young people about suicide in a safe and appropriate manner.”

An AIR presentation at Millburn high school. (Courtesy Attitudes in Reverse)

Earlier this month Governor Phil Murphy signed a law that will require the New Jersey Youth Suicide Prevention Advisory Council to develop a report regarding suicide prevention instruction being offered in schools across the state.

“Our kids know what suicide is, and if you open the conversation, then when somebody is struggling they feel that they have the opportunity to talk about it and not suffer in silence,” Sefcik said.

She said discussing suicide with young people can also spur them to seek help for a friend who may be in crisis.

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“If a youth is not thinking about suicide, by opening that conversation it’s not going to make them think, oh I think I want to kill myself,” Sefcik said.

Baker said before the COVID pandemic, an in-school survey found 17% of middle school students would ask for help for themselves or a friend.

“Since COVID this past year, the highest response we got from middle schoolers was 50%,” she said.

Baker said when AIR talks with students in school, certified therapy dogs also accompany the team.

Students at Mercer County Community College visit with AIR therapy dog Lily. (Courtesy Attitudes in Reverse)

“We let young people know that these are brain illnesses, that there is treatment available, and that there are people who care,” she said. “Young people after our presentations, they meet the dogs and the research shows the students will retain the information in the program far longer.”

She said in many cases, after their classroom visit, students will immediately decide to go talk with their guidance counselor.

“Often our dogs will go with them, cause when they pet a dog they feel more comfortable talking openly about what they are struggling with,”  Baker said.

AIR therapy dog Goober enjoys meeting high school students. (Courtesy Attitudes in Reverse)

While younger children are made aware of feelings and emotions, for middle schoolers, AIR counselors focus on the brain, and how like other parts of the body, it can get sick, what telltale signs of illness in the brain there are, and what steps can be taken to improve health of the brain. High schoolers are informed about mental health disorders.

Baker said she shares her son Kenny’s story and how efforts were made to get him help for his illness before he ultimately died by suicide.

AIR Therapy dogs recently visited The College of New Jersey. (Courtesy Attitudes in Reverse)

Advocates say the intervention of government officials, such as the new law, will support their work in saving young lives.

“This is a very positive step so we can have more information to know how we can really help our youth, if what we’re already doing is having an impact, and what we can do better, understanding that every district is unique,” Sefcik said.

Baker said any effort at educating young people about mental health and suicide prevention is vitally important.

“Years ago we started offering sex education, you need to understand this,” she said. “That’s resulted in less pregnancies, less venereal disease. We need to talk openly about what people are struggling with when it comes to mental health.”

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