Keep the big picture in mind.
There will be setbacks in life, but work on being resilient.
Depression can happen to the happiest people. It’s OK.
There’s always someone to talk to and it doesn’t hurt. In fact, it feels good to talk.
We weren’t built to keep our emotions bottled up.
Those were just a few of the sentiments a group of high school students shared April 26 during a roundtable discussion on suicide and depression. The roundtable was one of three on prevalent social issues facing young people included in the curriculum of the Rotary Youth Leadership Awards — a multiday event hosted in Soldotna at Solid Rock Bible Camp for the second year in a row.
RYLA is designed to foster and grow leadership traits through self-discovery exercises in students picked by their respective Rotary International chapters from the district that covers Alaska and the Yukon Territory, said Marcus Mueller, president of the Soldotna Rotary Club.
Perhaps the most important sentiment one student shared on Friday, however, was that it’s not “a betrayal” to talk to an adult about a friend showing signs of depression or sharing suicidal thoughts.
That was exactly the point Kelsie Olsen, a student from Whitehorse, Canada, said she hoped the other students took home with them. A lot of people know inside what to do when they see someone who needs help — or are in fact the person who needs it, she said. But talking openly about suicide and what to do should condition the person to make the right choice without hesitating, she said.
“Make it a routine muscle memory in your brain,” she said. “That’s what we want to do.”
Olsen was one of the RYLA’s alumni students who sat in on the suicide prevention and awareness talk — a session that was, depending on the about 40 students’ experience, either therapy, an eye-opener or a conversation-starter.
At the session’s beginning, the students were asked how many of them had been affected by suicide. Most raised their hands.
Olsen was among them, she said. She said the alumni students decided to bring suicide to the forefront of this year’s RYLA after an anonymous exercise last year indicated that many of the students attending had previously attempted suicide.
Between 1994 and 2007, the rate of teen suicide — ages 15 to 19 — in Alaska averaged almost five times the U.S. rate for the same age group, according to information from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Service’s Division of Public Health.
One in four Alaska teens suffered depression in the last year and, in 2011, one in 10 students had made a plan about how they would attempt suicide, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
Across all ages, suicide rates are higher in Alaska than the rest of the nation per 100,000 residents — 20 for the state in 2012 versus 12 for the nation. Alaska suicide rates were nearly double the national average in 2011, according to the Alaska Scorecard compiled by the Division of Public Health.
“I’m from Canada and we don’t really talk about it in our schools really,” Olsen said. “We all thought this would be a good place to talk about it because we feel safe in the circle.”
At the head of that circle was Pegge Erkeneff, who lead the group of students through the discussion.
“I think a group like this gives people permission to give voice to things, especially around tough topics ... break taboos and realize that there are more things that connect us than not,” she said. “I think it gives people permission to ask questions and to realize that they don’t have all the answers, that none of us do.
“But we have to start somewhere.”
Erkeneff started by sharing her story.
The 50-year-old Kasilof resident’s son, Justin, came to live with her when he was 7 years old when Erkeneff lived in Colorado.
“All he ever wanted was a forever family and all I ever wanted was to be a mom,” said Erkeneff of Justin, who had been in several foster homes as a young boy.
Justin went through a lot of therapy as a young man and Erkeneff said her son felt secured and established in her family. But that changed one day when Justin, then 16, stayed home from school sick. He did not call his mom to check in. Erkeneff got an icy cold feeling, she said.
“I never dreamed that my son, who was the light of the room, who was a delight and who I had just had an amazing week with ... I couldn’t even fathom what had happened,” said Erkeneff, now a communications specialist for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.
Erkeneff said she heard that Justin had joked with a friend at school about suicide. The friend who heard him joke about taking his life didn’t say anything because “he didn’t think it could be possible,” Erkeneff said.
Erkeneff said that was the main message she wanted students to take home. She said if she had confronted Justin about his jokes, she would have believed him that they were in fact an attempt at humor, and not a cry for help.
“If he would have said that to me I would have believed him,” she said. “I didn’t yet know that people who are healthy emotionally and mentally never joke about suicide.”
Students watched a short movie, “Railway of Hope,” filmed in Anchorage with Alaska students as actors, that detailed the struggles of a young man who suffered depression.
Nels Ure, a student from Kodiak High School who played the main character’s best friend, asked the group a series of questions about the film, one being what changes they saw in the main character.
Students said they noticed how his grades were slipping, that he gave up on his basketball team, how he seemed sluggish and distant and started giving some of his possessions away.
“As I sit around the group and I see people get uncomfortable, it reminds me of the first time the subject was brought up to me,” Ure said. “... And also that they are getting their feet wet on the situation and my hope is that even if they never experience something suicide-related in their life ... now they are going to have the resources to combat it and go about it in a healthy way.”
Brendan Scott, a Soldotna High School junior, sat in on the presentation. He said he hasn’t personally dealt with depression, but said he knew others who had. Scott said the issue of suicide was brought up in health class, but he did not feel the issue was a focus in school.
“That’s more of a freshman class, so I already took that,” he said. “From then on I haven’t heard anything about it.”
However, the 17-year-old said he feels the school tries to address the issue in other ways.
“They may not be teaching us about suicide, but they are trying to incorporate more people into groups and trying to get people out of seclusion,” he said. “... They are trying to bring together the rural community and keep it in place.”
Max Mutch, a Kodiak High School student, said he stayed for the presentation over others on eating disorders and bullying because it seemed like the most relevant topic.
Mutch said suicide and depression are talked about “once and a while” in school, but not often. Usually such discussions are in large assemblies and not in the classroom, which makes it less beneficial, he said.
“If you could somehow do it in a bunch of different smaller groups, it would make things a lot easier to talk about,” he said.
He started to think about a friend who is going through some depression back home and said he realized he needed to do something. He said he realized “this is serious.”
“Something clicked in my mind and I realized I needed to talk to someone about it,” he said. “I feel like I can do something now.”
Mueller said he felt the session was a healthy conversation-starter. With suicide, so much talk is about prevention and awareness, but Mueller said the next step forward is an open dialogue on the subject as a whole.
“Many of these social issues are issues that come from unspoken struggles and the struggle might still be there, but if we can turn from unspoken to something that’s within the dialogue, maybe that’s an avenue for affect,” he said.
Erkeneff agreed — it’s good to wrestle with tough issues.
“This is hopeful to me,” she said.
Brian Smith can be reached at email@example.com.