For the sake of others: New programs and training aim to prevent bullying, suicide in local schools
Facing a barrage of holiday music and happy Christmas shoppers at a supermarket in Maryland, Ronna Autrey abandoned her heavy shopping cart in the middle of the store and left in a hurry.
All of the happiness and music was too much for the mother to bear as she was grieving her son’s recent suicide.
“I just lost it,” she said.
Back in that grocery store 12 years ago, it would have been hard to imagine the things Autrey would go on to do in the Yampa Valley.
Remembering all of that pain, she now works tirelessly to prevent suicides here in Northwest Colorado as the head of Reaching Everyone Preventing Suicide, a nonprofit founded in 2004.
“It can’t change my loss,” she said about her work and the growth of the organization. “But it might save another family from having this loss and that pain and that heartache, and that’s absolutely worth it to me. Of all the things I do, the hardest thing I do is to go to the scene of a suicide to help because I have to see their crushing, mind-blowing pain.”
Heather Savalox, an environmental health specialist for Routt County, also knows that mind-blowing pain.
Her 15-year-old niece, Kristina, committed suicide after being bullied in Portage, Mich.
In the years since, Savalox founded It Takes Courage, a growing grass-roots organization that now is a program of REPS and works to prevent bullying and suicide in local schools.
“To me, what’s really incredible is just the way people in the community step up and want to help,” Savalox said. “Everyone has their own reason for helping.”
Focusing on youth
Two years ago, REPS started a new program that sends volunteers to Yampa Valley Medical Center’s emergency room to meet with patients who attempted or were considering suicide.
Of the 36 patients the program reached last year, 13 of them were ages 13 to 21.
It’s turning out to be the same again this year.
“The stats have enabled me to go to the school district and the college and say, ‘These are your students, and they’ve showed up at the ER,’” Autrey said.
These troubling numbers also helped secure more grant funding and donations.
In February, REPS taught all 50 Steamboat Springs High School teachers a method of suicide prevention called question, persuade, refer, or QPR, which is intended to help people spot the warning signs of suicide.
In March, 568 students at the high school received the same training.
The program also has reached Moffat County schools.
“We received very positive feedback from the students,” Autrey said, adding the training has helped the nonprofit secure more grant funding and donations.
The goal of REPS is to train at least 1,000 people in suicide prevention this year. A few weeks ago, they were at 863.
“Our awareness bar has gone up. More people are aware,” Autrey said. “The more people who are trained to spot these signs, they may catch somebody before they get into the hospital.”
All of these training numbers are exciting for REPS and Autrey to share because nine years ago, the organization was a small group of people talking around a table.
1 million views
Every day, Savalox checks the numbers.
As of this week, more than 1.3 million people have viewed her YouTube video “Bullied to Death” that chronicles how bullying led to the suicide of her niece, a beautiful straight-A student at a high school in Portage, Mich.
Savalox plays the video at local seminars as high school students share their own experiences of bullying others and being bulled.
The videos and presentations resonate with area students.
“At most bullying seminars, you take it seriously while you’re in there, but all the kids laugh about it afterward,” Soroco High School junior Alex Bryant said. “After Heather’s talk, you didn’t hear any laughing.”
Bryant’s friend Brittney Schrader said the presentations from It Takes Courage have more of an impact because they are personal.
Together, the girls raised $300 from a bake sale last school year to have It Takes Courage come present at their school.
“It’s actual teenagers with actual stories,” Schrader said.
And the stories from the volunteers are profound.
Steamboat Springs High School freshman Abby DeShazer talks about how her aggressive defense of someone she is close to essentially turned into bullying.
“I used to be mean right back to them, and it didn’t feel very good,” she wrote in a questionnaire about her experience with the group. “I learned that there are better ways to stand up for yourself and other people.”
Member Jaelyn Kohl, a Steamboat senior, recalls how she was bullied to the point of depression.
“I tell my story because I have seen all sides of bullying and suicide, and I have pulled myself out of a depression I didn’t think I would ever escape,” she wrote in her questionnaire. “My portion of the presentation is expressing to the kids that spreading love and positivity is what this world needs. Bullying won’t be tolerated.”
These students weren’t recruited. They were so inspired by Savalox’s story that they volunteer much of their time to help share their own stories.
The growth of REPS and It Takes Courage has ramped up in recent months.
It Takes Courage is on the verge of launching a new website and currently involves nine volunteers, including a therapist and a mental health professional.
“We’re really far along here,” Savalox said.
With many of her volunteers graduating soon, she’s looking for the next generation of students with their own stories.
As It Takes Courage plans its future, its parent organization is celebrating the success of a program it hopes can be modeled across the nation.
REPS’ Suicide Prevention Advocates Program launched with five volunteers in 2011 and has 17 today.
It has served 29 patients this year.
Autrey said none of the patients have returned to the emergency room after working with volunteers in the program.
REPS also has been able to provide patients with such things as financial assistance for therapy.
“I know we’ve saved lives, which is a tremendous feeling, and I know we’ve lost some people we never had a chance to help. We didn’t have a clue. It may always be that way unfortunately,” Autrey said.
The suicide rate in this corner of the state is considered very high when the total population is considered.
Routt County averages five suicides per year, and it’s a number Autrey and others watch closely.
This year, four men — ages 21, 43, 54 and 59 — have taken their own lives.
“And that’s the age group we typically see, ages 35 to 60,” Autrey said. “It’s not unusual at all, and it’s mainly because they’re men hiding feelings from everyone, and they’re not seeking help.”
Each suicide is the result of unique circumstances, Autrey said, but substance abuse, relationship breakups and financial troubles rank high on the list of contributing factors.
Many of the area’s suicide stories haven’t been made public, and they might never come to light because suicides, as tragic as they are for friends and loved ones, are treated by the media and the public differently than most other deaths.
They’re also hard to talk about in a picturesque community like Steamboat Springs.
But Autrey and Savalox have chosen to take all of the pain they experienced in their own tragedies and use it to prevent suicides.
They do everything they can to make sure the conversations about these tough topics continue.
“I’m really proud of what we’re doing, and I feel like my son would be proud of what we’re doing,” Autrey said. “I feel like he’s saying. ‘You go, mom.’”
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