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Numerous local suicide prevention resources available

The Journal Times - 9/24/2023

Sep. 24—RACINE — A significant part of Laura Vanderheyden's job involves working proactively to help students view themselves in a positive light.

As Racine Unified prevention and wellness coordinator, she supports students and staff in a variety of ways, including training to help prevent suicide.

RUSD did not have any students who died by suicide last school year, the first time that has happened in many years, according to Vanderheyden.

Vanderheyden and Andrea Rittgers, RUSD executive director of student services, aim to continue that proactive work so students can lead meaningful lives.

"We want everyone in our community to feel as mentally healthy and physically healthy as possible," Rittgers said. "Feeling a certain way right now is an OK thing, and there are resources and support available for you."

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and area professionals shared information about suicide prevention, helpful resources and potential risk factors.

Warning signs of suicide include, but are not limited to, hopelessness, despair, talking about death, giving away important items and losing interest in activities one usually enjoys.

Sheri Hess, National Alliance on Mental Illness Racine County outreach coordinator, believes every adult has thought at least in passing about suicide, so knowing risk factors is key.

"It affects 100 out of 100 people, so it is important to know the facts, and it is important to know warning signs and symptoms, and it is important to know how to help yourself or help others," Hess said.

NAMI Racine County also has a monthly "Survivors of Suicide" support group for people whose loved ones have died by suicide.

There is no archetype of what a suicidal person looks like.

If someone appears happy in some settings, they may still have warning signs that should not be ignored, according to Hollie White, project coordinator of improving children's mental health through school and community.

White works in Racine County to prevent mental health crises and suicide and to increase access to mental health and suicide prevention services.

Services include a Racine County website with a multitude of mental health resources for children and adults, including immediate help for someone with suicidal thoughts.

The website can be accessed at

Wisconsin is on track to report more than 900 deaths by suicide this year, according to a Racine County news release.

According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, in September, about 1.3 million people in the U.S. will have suicidal thoughts, 142,000 will attempt suicide and 4,000 people will die by suicide.

Suicide is the 12th leading cause of death overall in the U.S. and the second leading cause of death among people ages 10-14 and 25-34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Addressing the mental health of students is also foundational to learning. People ages 6-17 with mental, emotional or behavioral concerns are three times more likely to repeat a grade, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. High school students with significant symptoms of depression are more than twice as likely to drop out compared to their peers.

At RUSD, middle school and high school students review signs of suicide in health class and learn how to get support if they or their peers are experiencing suicidal thoughts.

According to Rittgers and Vanderheyden, students often initially discuss struggles with each other, so it is important for students to know how to refer peers to a staff member like a counselor, social worker or psychologist.

RUSD teachers receive similar training on potential risk factors and how to refer someone to an appropriate staffer.

During training, educators ask this question out loud: Are you thinking about killing yourself?

That way, teachers are more likely to ask the question to someone if needed.

"It's a difficult question to ask if you've never asked it," Vanderheyden said. "It's OK to ask that question ... You have to be that blunt. That opens the door for open conversation."

Asking that question does not make someone more likely to act on suicidal ideation.

"The thought is already there," Hess said. "You're not going to make them do it. What you're doing is acknowledging that that thought is there and that you're there to help them."

If a person mentions suicidal ideation, one should listen in a non-judgmental way and assist them in receiving professional help.

"It's actually good that they're telling you that and that they want to talk about it," Hess said. "Sometimes that's all they need, is to be able to talk about it and say, 'This is how I'm feeling.' ... That's the chance where they can get help."

It is also not helpful to stay quiet about your struggles or someone else's struggles.

"You can't handle this alone," White said. "If somebody tells you that they're suicidal or you're seriously concerned about them, you're not doing them any favors by keeping quiet. You need to talk to somebody."

A stigma around discussing suicide exists, but local professionals said that has decreased over time.

According to Rittgers and Vanderheyden, students' understanding and acceptance of verbalizing mental health challenges has improved.

"The more we talk about it, the more we normalize having these conversations and using this language, the more kids are open to it," Rittgers said.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing challenges for many, but it also made more people aware of the importance of mental health and suicide prevention.

"If there was a benefit of any kind to this pandemic, it was the national spotlight on mental health and wellbeing," Rittgers said.

Through access to local resources and practice, people can build up their mental wellbeing and be less likely to die by suicide.

"It's a muscle," Vanderheyden said. "There's muscle memory to it. You can lose it, but you can gain it."

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health or suicide crisis or emotional distress, reach out 24/7 to the free and confidential 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988 or using chat services at to connect to a trained crisis counselor. You can also get crisis text support via the Crisis Text Line by texting NAMI to 741741.


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