‘Suicide is preventable — anyone can make a difference’

Local groups work to help teens with mental health needs

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published October 27, 2021

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MADISON HEIGHTS — Current events are taking a toll on the mental health of today’s youth, leading to anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide.  

Kimberly Heisler, the executive director of the Madison Heights Community Coalition (MHCC), points to data from Oakland County that shows how the pandemic has negatively impacted the thoughts and feelings of seventh graders, ninth graders and 11th graders in the area.

According to the data, nearly 28% of the sampled youth reported having less fun doing things than they once did; about 24% said they have felt sad or depressed for hours; nearly 40% have felt more irritated or easily annoyed than usual; nearly 25% have lost their temper lately; nearly 33% have been feeling nervous, anxious or scared; and nearly 17% of students have seriously considered attempting suicide — a figure that closely matches the high school data that surveyed all grades, where nearly 16% of local high school students have also considered suicide.

The MHCC’s evaluator, Dr. Darren Lubbers, further broke down the county data to reflect the gender disparity. Here, women had higher rates of depression (32.4%) compared to men (13.5%), and 44.2% of women felt nervous compared to 18.6% of men.

The MHCC has worked alongside another group, Madison Heights Youth Assistance (MHYA), to try and help students navigate these tough times. Recently, the MHCC received federal assistance in the form of the Drug-Free Communities grant from the Centers for Diseases Control, which is worth $125,000 a year for five years.

“The third time (submitting it) was the charm in receiving this awesome grant,” Heisler said in an email. “With the extra funds, we will be able to hire a youth coordinator and an accountant to help us manage the grant. We will be accepting applications very soon, and are looking for someone who shares the passion we have for students and our community.”

On a mission
The MHCC’s purpose is to identify both youth substance abuse prevention needs and mental health needs among Madison Heights students, and to then develop plans to address those needs.

“Our goals are to reduce 30-day substance use, increase the perception of harm from substance use, and decrease the perception of approval from friends and parents for substance use,” Heisler said. “We will accomplish this by educating students and parents on the risks of using substances, and also provide students with the tools to strengthen and improve mental health.”

The group operates out of Madison Heights City Hall, mostly on a volunteer basis.

“We couldn’t operate without our dedicated volunteers,” Heisler said.

The MHYA, meanwhile, is one of 26 Youth Assistance programs across Oakland County. MHYA is a community-based program whose mission is to strengthen youth and families, which in turn will prevent and reduce delinquency, neglect and abuse. The programs are supported by a three-way sponsorship agreement between the Circuit Court, local school districts and local municipalities.

MHYA offers educational and recreational program opportunities such as the recent Motor to the Movies event, the Grinch Candy Cane Hunt, the “Real Life, Real Consequences” education program for adolescents and parents, as well as yoga and art therapy programming at schools, camp and skill-building scholarships, and more.

But MHYA also provides more individualized programming in the form of casework services, which serve as direct interventions to families who are self-referred or referred by other sources such as school personnel or police officers, and sometimes diverted there by the juvenile court system.

“Helping youth and families to recognize there is a need for mental health services, and to find the resources to address the issues that the youth and families are struggling with, is crucial to their ultimate well-being, and the health of our community,” said Deborah Lindsey, the MHYA caseworker, via email. “Youth Assistance provides a safe and trusted place for families and our youth to honestly share their concerns, frustrations and fears about behaviors and issues they are experiencing.”

Rising to the moment
Lindsey described how the current pandemic — and an uncertain future — is creating stress.

“This service has always been a valuable part of what Youth Assistance does, but never more so than during this pandemic when our youth and families have experienced increased levels of isolation, loss, turmoil in our society and the world at large, as well as academic stressors, and overall increased uncertainties and disruptions in numerous areas of their lives,” Lindsey said. “Overuse of technology, video games and substance use are also part of the increasing stressors that families and youth are being impacted by. Strengthening our families and community support for our youth and families has never been more important to the well-being of us all.”

Heisler said that one approach the MHCC has taken is developing a coping skills toolbox for students dealing with emotions such as anxiety, fear, sadness and stress.

“A coping skills toolbox is a physical container that houses items students can use to help them calm down and express their emotions in healthy ways,” Heisler explained, noting that what works for each student will vary depending on their temperament, favorite activities and energy levels.

The MHCC has been working with counselors and social workers at Wilkinson Middle School and John Page Middle School to equip students at both schools with coping kits. The students at Wilkinson will receive their kits after an assembly on suicide prevention set for Nov. 8.

The MHCC is also in the early stages of implementing its “Suicide Safer” plan for middle school students, which will include virtual training to teach participants how to recognize the signs of suicidal thoughts in others, as well as how to show the person that you want to help, and how to connect them to resources for safety and support.

‘Let them know … they’re not alone’
Heisler said that families can also do their part.

“Parents need simply to talk to their children, and listen — really listen, without judgment, as we all know that conflicts are a basic part of everyday life,” she said. “For younger students, some conflicts seem impossible to handle. As an adult, listening with empathy and providing support is key. Youth need to have a person they can trust and with whom they can share their problems.

“For this reason, try to put yourself in their shoes. Listen, and accept their feelings for their situation,” Heisler said. “Most of the time, a solution is not the immediate answer, but rather a listening ear, and showing your child that you care, and that you’re willing to hear their feelings without judgment.”

In talking to one’s child, Heisler recommends letting the child lead the conversation. Don’t offer advice or try to solve their problems unless they ask. Keep your questions open-ended, and never demand answers — let the child open up at their own pace. At the same time, let them know it’s OK to feel the way they do, and that they’re not alone.

“Suicide is preventable,” Heisler said. “Anyone can make a difference.”

Roslyn Grafstein, the mayor of Madison Heights, said she wants to see the city do more to support efforts addressing mental illness.

“In-patient beds have wait lists, as do youth therapists and psychiatrists. The COVID pandemic  and shutdown has exacerbated the sense of isolation many feel, and our vulnerable youth feel worse when they see skewed, one-sided, happy posts on social media, which hide the sad desperate reality many actually feel,” Grafstein said in an email. “Our emergency responders are wonderful when they are called out to talk with a youth in crisis, but higher levels of government need to step up and provide real resources — not just lip service.

“I would like to see actual funding from the county, state and federal levels to train clinicians in these areas, so that a teen with mild mental health problems can get the preventative help they need, without ever reaching a point of crisis,” the mayor said. “And parents need to take the time to listen to, and be present with their kids — even when the topic may seem trivial. These conversations encourage ongoing two-way communication, which helps our youth know that someone is ready to listen when they are struggling or need help.”