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Joplin community searches for solutions, offers support in wake of teen suicides

Joplin Globe - 1/14/2018

Jan. 14--On Jan. 18, 2017, Elias Rodriguez was at the skate park with his best friend.

Everything seemed normal, and when the pair parted ways, they offered up a familiar farewell to one another: "See you tomorrow."

Tomorrow would never come. The best friend took his own life the following day, and Rodriguez has spent the year since trying to come to grips with what happened.

"We need to learn, as a community, to push those stigmas aside," said Rodriguez, now 17 and a recent graduate of Joplin High School. "We've all got to work together for this, and it starts right here, right now."

Rodriguez was one of approximately 100 people who turned out Wednesday for a four-hour community forum on the subject of teenage suicide, of which there have been four reported in Joplin and Carthage since August. A meeting space at Joplin Avenue Coffee Co. was filled with all segments of society -- high school students, principals, administrators, school board members, teachers, parents, friends and family members of lost loved ones, church leaders, therapists, counselors -- as the group grappled with how to address the issue and try to prevent it from happening again.

"It's about finding collaborative, nonblaming, teamwork-focused solutions," said Kristine Wullenweber, a licensed clinical social worker at Southern Light Counseling and an organizer of the forum. "What we don't want is a puzzle nobody can put together when they need help."

A family's grief

Among the teen deaths this academic year was that of Ty Grafton, a 16-year-old student at Joplin High School.

"Dec. 19 was the worst day of my life," said his mother, Ashley Grafton. "Our normally happy-go-lucky son felt like he had no other way out than to take his own life."

Grafton said her son was seeing a therapist for some lingering childhood issues, but there were no warning signs, no red flags that he was considering suicide. There was no indication that he was bullied, and most of his peers perceived him to be a happy, kind teenager.

She noted that may or may not necessarily be the case with other cases of teenage suicide, and indeed that can be one of the problems with trying to draw a link or find a common cause when there's a rash of tragedies.

"There's not a one-size-fits-all solution for this situation," she said. "I think we have to be careful not to go too far in one direction."

She and her husband, Eric, have pledged to raise awareness of teenage suicide in the wake of Ty's death as a way to honor his memory and to try to prevent a similar tragedy from befalling another family.

"It's important that we focus on trying to make this better for somebody in this situation ... and meet them at their level, in their comfort zone," she said. "I think it's important instead of (focusing on) risk factors and causes, we need to design a way that makes our youth more comfortable coming together and saying, 'We need help.'"

School programs

Three Joplin High School students, including Ty Grafton, have died by suicide in the past three months. Sandra Cantwell, director of student services, said the school district is taking the losses "very seriously."

The high school has a number of mental health initiatives in place this year, according to information from Principal Brandon Eggleston. Those include:

--One-to-one conferencing, in which teachers meet quarterly with students on an individual basis.

--The availability of four full-time guidance counselors and one part-time counselor, although there are no longer mental health counselors at the high school. Those positions were funded by a grant awarded to the school district after the 2011 tornado; last year was the final year of that grant, Superintendent Mendy Moss said. Attempts to find subsequent grants to fund those positions haven't been successful, she said.

--Transitions, a mandatory course designed to build relationships between teachers and students. Beginning Jan. 22, students will start learning in this class how to identify signs of mental distress, either in themselves or in others, and what to do about it.

"They need to know it's not their problem and not theirs to solve, but they need to know how and where to report it," said Janet Earl, who works in the student services department for Joplin Schools.

--Mentoring, wherein upperclassmen are assigned a small group of freshmen to work with and guide.

--Use of a notification system that alerts school personnel when a student, using a school computer or other device, sends, receives or views material that may indicate harm to others or to him-/herself.

--Training for teachers to identify warning signs of mental distress and how to talk about mental health with students.

Kasondra Boone, an English teacher at Joplin High School, believes part of her role in the classroom is teaching her students life skills, such as how to cope with their emotions and how to let others know when they're struggling.

"If all they learn in my class is how to write a paper or conjugate a verb, then I didn't do my job," she said. "There is an educator in your life that you can talk to. If there is somebody at school you can make a connection with, do it."

Barry Plumlee, with Ozark Center in Joplin, said he routinely visited Crawford County, Kansas, schools during his 10-year tenure with a mental health organization there. He found it beneficial, he said, to visit with students for 15 to 20 minutes at a time on a regular basis in a place where they already were during the day.

"I had kids approach me who knew who I was, and I'm not Mom or Dad or a teacher," he said. "It was very open and very relaxed. It worked."

Role of churches

Several Joplin-area churches were represented as their leaders and youth ministers sought ways to better connect their young friends with the resources and the help they might need in times of crisis.

Angel Garcia, a youth minister at St. Paul's United Methodist Church, said he believes any education or prevention program would need to meet students where they are, whether that's in the schools, on social media or in their favorite hangout spots.

He said taking the resources to the students, rather than expecting students to seek out resources on their own, could remove the barriers and stigmas of asking for help.

"I think maybe that's the direction we should look in, if it's at all possible," he said.

Mickel Clark, with Destiny Church, believes that hope is one of the missing pieces of the conversation. He said teens today often struggle with understanding their identity and are forced to grow up faster than they ever have before, and when they hear adults complaining about how young people today aren't like they were generations ago, it could leave them feeling misunderstood and isolated.

"Maybe we're the problem," he said. "Think about it as a community -- maybe the adults are the problem. Slow down and get in their world a little bit. We have to offer hope to these kids."

Area churches are planning a youth rally on Saturday, Feb. 17, at Victory Ministry and Sports Complex, 3405 Hammons Blvd. The theme of the evening, which will include guest speakers and live music, will be suicide awareness and prevention.

"We have to change the culture, the way we talk about this stuff," said Brandon Bills, with The Light church. "... And I think it can be on a large scale so these kids know there's another option (to suicide)."

LGBT response

Among specific subgroups of the teenage population, it is perhaps lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth who can have some of the biggest risk factors for suicide.

"Unfortunately, suicide is not new to us," said Chelsea Barks, vice president of the JoMoEq organization that supports the LGBT community in Joplin. "It's something that has gone on in our community for a long time."

According to The Trevor Project, a national suicide prevention organization for LGBT youth:

--Teens and young adults who are lesbian, gay or bisexual seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth and are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth.

--Of all suicide attempts made by youth, attempts by lesbian, gay and bisexual youth were almost five times as likely to require medical treatment than those of heterosexual youth, and they're four to six times more likely to result in injury, poisoning or overdoes that requires treatment.

--Approximately 40 percent of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt, with 92 percent of those individuals reported having made the attempt before the age of 25.

--Lesbian, gay and bisexual youth who come from families that reject them are 8.4 times as likely to have attempted suicide as peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection.

--Each episode of LGBT victimization, such as physical or verbal harassment or abuse, increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by 2.5 times, on average.

It's a familiar story for Jaden Murray, a 16-year-old transgender male student at Neosho High School. He said his freshman year at another school, which he said was fraught with issues over which bathroom he was required to use, left him feeling isolated and alone.

"It got to the point I was suicidal, hoping for a car wreck or house fire or something that would take me away from everything," he said.

The Trevor Project operates a 24/7 hotline -- 1-866-488-7386 -- for LGBT youth in crisis. The JoMoEq group also meets twice per month at Joplin Avenue Coffee Co. and offers a closed chat group on its Facebook page for teens and young adults, Barks said.

T-shirt fundraiser

Ashley Grafton, Ty Grafton's mother, has designed a T-shirt featuring the word "hope" and a semicolon, which signals a pause but not the end. The shirts are available for purchase at www.bonfire.com/tygraftonmemorialfund; all proceeds will go toward the implementation of a suicide awareness and prevention program at Joplin High School.

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(c)2018 The Joplin Globe (Joplin, Mo.)

Visit The Joplin Globe (Joplin, Mo.) at www.joplinglobe.com

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