Assembly sheds light on depression, seeks to combat suicide

Students at Claremont High School filed into the Wolfpack gym on December 1, some grabbing a spot in the bleachers and others sitting on the floor, ready for a lively presentation on a sobering topic.

The teens were gathered for a Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Assembly, aimed at helping young people recognize the signs of depression and, if needed, provide a lifeline to someone thinking about ending their life.

Needing help is nothing to be ashamed about, event organizer Kirby Palmer told the students. Mr. Palmer, a clinical social worker who’s a consultant to the Claremont Police Department, noted that depression can happen to anyone.

It can stem from a number of causes, including physical illness, trauma, ongoing stress, substance abuse or a chemical imbalance.

A friend in need

“What is depression?” Mr. Palmer posed. He answered the question by painting a picture of someone in crisis.

He asked the kids to picture a friend who once thrived academically, but is now struggling with their grades or even skipping school. Perhaps they’ve lost interest in activities they once loved and, while they were once friendly and fun, they’ve become withdrawn.

They may frequently say they are bored, which Mr. Palmer said is a word young people often use to describe a more serious state.

“They may be more angry and irritable—you may say, ‘This is not the person I’ve known all these years,’” Mr. Kirby said. “Maybe they say they can’t sleep well and they don’t have as much energy as usual. All of these changes are signs of depression.”

Having depression “is like trying to play soccer in concrete shoes,” Mr. Palmer shared.

“When someone is feeling so heavy and dark, they start having negative thoughts. They may think that nothing will change, that they’re a bad person,” he said. “They may even start to have thoughts about hurting or killing themselves.”

Recovery from depression may entail therapy and, in some cases, medication. Whatever the treatment, improvement is possible.

“I want you to know depression is a time-limited thing,” he emphasized. “Once you start to feel better, the negative thoughts go away.” With this in mind, Mr. Palmer urged students not to seek “a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

Clara Dehmer, assistant principal of student services at CHS, took a moment to assure the teens that the staff and administration at the high school are there to listen.

“The adults here like working with your age group. We like your enthusiasm and your passion,” she said. “If you need our support, just say, ‘I need help.’ We are here for you.”

An important calling card

Students were next shown a video about the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program. It was founded in 1994 by the parents and friends of Mike Emme, a bright and loving 17-year-old who committed suicide.

They decided to honor Mike’s memory by founding an organization dedicated to ensuring no other teens find themselves in his place—feeling despondent and not knowing how to ask for help.

The film next introduced the nonprofit’s Ask4Help card. One side of the card, small enough to be stowed in a wallet or purse, features seven words a teen in crisis can say to a counselor, teacher, clergy, doctor, parent or friend: “I need to use my yellow ribbon.”

Many young people have reached out to the Emme family, sharing that they had pondered suicide and their lives were saved by using an Ask4Help card.

If someone hands you a yellow card, sharing that they are dangerously depressed or even contemplating suicide, you don’t have to be a therapist to help.  Stay with your friend, the card advises, and listen to their concerns. And get help, either by notifying a caring adult or by dialing the suicide hotline printed on the card.

These cards are distributed to each attendee at a Yellow Ribbon assembly, held every other year at Claremont High School and El Roble Intermediate and at campuses across the nation.

Bringing it home

A student speaker then took to the mic, bringing the story of teenage depression from the hypothetical to the real.

CHS junior Clara Riggio acknowledged that she might seem like an unlikely candidate for depression. She’s widely recognizable on campus because of her achievements, such as membership on the CHS Dance Team and involvement with the school’s theater department.

What her peers might not know, she said, is that a year and a half ago she was in a very bad place. School has always been incredibly stressful, and it was extremely difficult to keep up with my extra-curricular activities,” Clara said.

Her anxiety was compounded by self-criticism. “I’ve always had a voice telling me I’m not good enough,” Clara said. “I worry about my weight, my personality—even my annoying laugh.”

Things came to a head after she experienced the loss of two close friends. One of these was Esmé Page, who committed suicide as a CHS freshman in March 2015.

Clara didn’t mention Esmé by name, because Mr. Palmer had opted not to make the event specifically about her suicide.

When there’s a suicide on a campus, there’s always the danger that another teen who is in a troubled headspace might view the victim as a martyr or an example to be followed. 

Nonetheless, Esmé’s suicide had a profound impact on the campus, on the community and on Clara. 

“I had known this person almost my entire life. My sadness was immense,” she said. “I was constantly asking myself, ‘What could I have done?’”

Clara said she understands firsthand how easy it is to have self-destructive thoughts. “Believe me, I know those thoughts—those feelings that make you want to punch and kick and tear your hair out,” she said.

In April of 2015, she began seeing a therapist. “I learned that the feelings I was having were depression,” Clara said.

She said she continues to see a therapist and takes some medication. She has also learned ways of dealing with sadness and stress. One of her favorite techniques is to recall the things that make her happy, like “pancakes, classic rock, Disneyland and crunchy leaves.”

Clara says she has seen her life improve immensely since asking for help.

“I’m still not happy every day. I still have dark thoughts, but I am so much more confident,” she said. “In reality, taking care of your mind is as important as taking care of your body.”

Mr. Palmer said he was lucky to find a student like Clara willing to speak at the assembly.

“I thought it was extremely brave,” he said. “I thought she was very articulate and right on point.”

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 10 and 24, according to statistics on The Jason Foundation website; each day in our nation, there is an average of more than 5,240 suicide attempts among teens in grades 7 through 12. 

CHS sophomore Elsie Chen said she hopes things like the Yellow Ribbon assembly can make that number smaller. “I think it’s really cool. I really love how they’re open to talk to us,” she said. “I love the posters that say, ‘You matter.’”

—Sarah Torribio


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