Trigger Warning: This article covers topics of suicide and mental illness
“Kaylee Schaier Burke was 20 years old when she died by suicide. She was an amazing daughter, granddaughter, sister, and cousin. She had a loving family and was supported in every aspect of her life. She loved to dance, sing, watch Broadway shows, and hang out with her pets. She always brightened a room with her beautiful singing voice, her whimsical personality, and her delightful conversation.”
After losing her cousin to suicide several months ago, Siena Schaier (‘24) knew she had to do something to raise awareness. She got into contact with Shannon Caron, the director of counseling at Oyster River High School (ORHS), and with a connection to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a suicide prevention training was arranged. During the school day on Thursday, May 25th, 30 students and 15 teachers within the school participated in this training.
“This is something that’s very close to heart for me because I lost a cousin to suicide, so this group was very important to me, and I never want another family to have to go through what my family went through,” says Schaier.
The purpose of training was to teach students how to spot the signs and help students who may experience suicidal thoughts or have issues with mental health.
Lucas Savage (‘24), a student who got involved with the training through student senate, explained how during the training he learned techniques for how to notice and help when people are at risk, and how to spread awareness about the issue of suicide.
Some students involved, like Grace Kasper (‘25), especially enjoyed the training because it covered topics about suicide prevention that the students couldn’t get anywhere else. “I feel like a lot of the time in school when we talk about this, it’s always kind of the same thing, like in health class they’re like ‘don’t commit suicide.’ There was so much more information that we hadn’t really been able to get from school.”
The training lasted the whole day and was broken up into informative activities. Some of these include giving the students a situation where they discussed how they would go about preventing a suicide, and another where students volunteered to answer different questions about risk factors and how to detect the signs that someone might be considering suicide.
“I think what came out was trying to destigmatize help-seeking behaviors. So, it was, ‘here are all the barriers or all the reasons why someone might not seek help,’” explains Caron. “By having those conversations, it really led to great conversations on how we help people know that we want to help.”
Some teens might not seek help because of the stigma around it, which is one of the reasons there is a problem.
Kasper is excited that having this training will create awareness about the scale of the issue. “I feel like having something like this inside our school is another step for change. It’s another step for progress.”
Each student had their own important takeaway from the training. Savage said the most important thing he learned was that “when someone is struggling, you have to focus on them and not focus on the method. […] It’s not about removing sharp objects; it’s not about taking away their options. It’s about talking them down from that edge and getting that right headspace for them to be okay with their thoughts.”
Kasper found it comforting to know how important this issue is to so many students, and said she learned how there are other people in this school who care.
Schaier thought it was important to make sure everybody is okay while preventing a suicide. “Even though someone might be dealing with this and you really want to help them, you need to make sure that you have a support group of your own. […] If someone’s drowning in quicksand, you’re not going to jump in the quicksand [to help them] without a support line. You have to be holding on to other people to make sure you can pull them out.”
Caron was enthusiastic to help organize the training and was satisfied with how it turned out. She thought it was an incredible opportunity to have conversations about mental health that instituted positive change within the community. She is glad students were able to learn about risk factors, protective factors, and how to create an environment where people are encouraged to seek help when they need it.
Although this specific training might not occur again at ORHS, both Schaier and Caron believe that “this now becomes a self-sustaining model.” Each trainee now has the skills to teach other students how to help raise awareness and prevent suicide. “The students who are trained are going to be able to talk to other students about this issue and train them to spot the signs,” explains Schaier.
These trainees will begin by visiting advisories and training them on how to detect the signs and will start activities similar to the ones in the training. Caron is excited to see where this might lead. “This was just the start of something that’s going to be really incredible.”
(Photo credit: Shannon Caron)