Here's how Michigan's community mental health agencies are helping prevent youth suicide

Summit Pointe, Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan, and other community mental health agencies provide youth access to services that help them overcome suicidal thoughts and self-harming actions.
Isabelle Buck leads be nice. program at Grandville Middle SchoolThis article is part of MI Mental Health, a new series highlighting the opportunities that Michigan's children, teens, and adults of all ages have to find the mental health help they need, when and where they need it. It is made possible with funding from Summit Pointe, Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan, Community Mental Health Association of Michigan, and its community mental health (CMH) agency members. 

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people in Michigan — and rates are on the rise. Between 1997 and 2017, the suicide rate for ages 10 through 24 grew from 8.9 to 10.6 per 100,000 residents. A 2015 Michigan Profile for Healthy Youth survey found that about a third of the state’s high school students experienced feelings of depression, 17% had considered suicide, and nearly one in ten had attempted suicide. 
Scott Teichmer, Summit Pointe suicide prevention facilitator
But Scott Teichmer, a suicide prevention facilitator at Summit Pointe Community Mental Health, chooses to focus on a different statistic. 

“Over 90% of people who have made a suicide attempt and survive do not later die by suicide,” he says. “The vast majority of people who survive a suicide attempt live out the rest of their lives.”

Teichmer is one of them. He struggled with anxiety and depression from a young age, and at 14, he began experiencing suicidal thoughts. It was a secret he carried through adolescence and into his 20s. After a series of suicide attempts, including one that left him hospitalized at age 24, he began the hard work of healing. 

“It was a long road for me getting to the point where suicidal thoughts were not a part of my daily experience,” he says. “And part of what really helped me was when I started working in behavioral health.”

Teichmer found a sense of purpose in helping others. As he led sessions on coping and psychosocial skills, he realized he was also learning those skills for himself. Now through his work with Summit Pointe, the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Calhoun County, and the video series Speak the Unspeakable, he shares his story as living proof that healing is possible.

“If we want to prevent suicide, we all have to have the philosophical perspective that if somebody is still here with us, there is still hope,” he says. “Period.”

be nice. makes learning about mental health fun.A simple message with striking results: be nice.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s an abundance of suicide-prevention programs designed for use within schools. Barry County utilizes the Signs of Suicide program; Spectrum Health adapted its Blue Envelope program for use in eight county school districts; and the be nice. action plan developed by the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan (MHFWM) is used in more than 70 schools statewide. 

be nice. is a student-centered program that normalizes conversations about mental health issues through a four-step action plan: notice, invite, challenge, and empower. In elementary schools, be nice. is led by staff liaisons. In middle and high schools, student leaders take the reins in implementing events, activities, and lessons. 

“Evidence has shown that when students lead initiatives, other students tend to listen more intently,” says Christy Buck, executive director of MHFWM. 

In a three-year, evidence-based study of be nice. across 74 schools, Grand Valley State University researchers found that rates of aggression decreased by 49% in high school, 56% in middle school, and 72% in elementary school. 

“It improved climate, improved connectedness, and increased positive behaviors,” Buck says. 

Kodi and Evelynn, eighth graders at Ravenna Middle School in Muskegon County can attest to that. They’re part of the leadership of the school’s be nice. club. In the year since the program started, “I feel like there’s not as much drama,” Evelynn says. “Overall, there’s been more kindness.”

The club holds recurring activities — Be Nice Bytes is a segment in the school’s newscast featuring be nice. members talking about the program, and Student of the Week spotlights kids who embody be nice. principles. The club also hosts special events.

“For Thanksgiving, we did this activity called the Thankful Turkey,” Kodi says. “We took a hand shape, and we wrote five things that we were grateful for, and then we put it up on the cafeteria wall around a turkey.”

be nice. tailors materials to middle schooler's mental health needs.Another opportunity for reflection was Walk in Your Shoes. Students traced their footprint and wrote a story inside about a personal struggle.

“We all go through things,” Kodi explains. “It could just be simply the winter blahs — it’s cold outside, and we all just get depressed and stuff. When we have a fun activity to boost mental health, it just makes everything so much better.”

The be nice. club is currently planning a lights-out assembly where students will answer questions by holding up glowsticks. 

“It’s gonna start off with not-serious questions like do you have a pet at home,” Evelynn says. “And it’s going to get more serious.”

“Like, ‘Are your parents divorced?’” Kodi adds. 

The exercise — a visual metaphor of lights in the darkness — will illustrate that even if students are having a hard time, they’re not alone. 

Their be nice. liaison and teacher, Tammi Kantola, explains that students take full responsibility for the program. For example, they decided to offer prizes to incentivize participation in be nice. activities. Not only did the students survey the school to see what prizes they’d like, they also wrote a grant to fund the project. 

“They’re finding in middle school, it’s hard to have a voice,” Kantola says, adding that other behavioral systems training programs tend to focus on the rules students are breaking. “We’ve really tried to come out strong with the opposite side of that. They look at the positive, and we catch the good.”

Shifting the focus from risk to protection

The problem of youth suicide isn’t unique to Michigan. The last two decades have seen a gradual increase in youth suicide rates across the United States. The reasons, Teichmer says, are complex. 

“We can look at epidemiological studies, but there’s just so many variables that might have effects that we’re not even aware of,” he says. 

These variables include increases in the prevalence of social media and internet use, premature puberty, and firearm ownership. Economic circumstances, bullying, and mental health diagnoses such as ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder that affect impulse control may also correlate with increased suicide risk. 

However, Teichmer is quick to note that correlation is not causation and warns that oversimplifying the narrative can unintentionally normalize suicide as a response to these factors. 

“At no point is suicide a natural consequence of any of those things,” he says. 

A more constructive approach, Teichmer suggests, is to focus less on risk factors and more on protective ones. He encourages adults to cultivate supportive relationships with the children in their lives. Children who are taught constructive coping mechanisms, problem-solving skills, and emotional regulation, he says, “are better equipped to understand themselves as human beings navigating this tricky thing we call life.”

Conversations about hard topics like suicide can help prevent it.Systemic responses: CMH initiatives, online resources, and school programs

Outside of individual relationships, Community Mental Health (CMH) providers are stepping up to help youths in crisis. In Calhoun County, Summit Pointe offers an array of resources irrespective of insurance. Their mobile Intensive Crisis Stabilization team responds to crises within the community, assessing, de-escalating, and planning next steps. Meanwhile, their 24/7 First Step Psychiatric Urgent Care Center offers behavioral and mental health care with no appointment necessary. Finally, their peer support program connects at-risk youths with mentors who’ve achieved a degree of recovery and can help them navigate the at-times complicated web of social safety nets and CMH systems, as well as family life, work, and school. 

“That [peer support] person, in themselves, is an installation of hope in the sense that they’ve been there,” Teichmer says. “Just providing encouragement, helping that person have as much self-determination in their mental health treatment as possible.”

Care for at-risk youth doesn’t stop at CMHs. Digital resources include the 988 lifeline, which can be texted as well as called; apps like Calm Harm and Headspace; and websites like the Trevor Project and It Gets Better, which specifically target at-risk LGBTQ+ youth. 

And through programs like be nice., students like Evelynn and Kodi are finding their voice and using it to advocate for mental health for a new generation. 

“A really long time ago, if you had anxiety or depression, you were seen as crazy and you were locked away. But really it’s normal,” Evelynn says. “So, I think this is helping with the mental block and telling everybody that it’s okay to struggle.”

“We all go through things that nobody is aware of sometimes,” Kodi concludes. “The smallest acts of kindness can make somebody’s day so much better,  make them excited to come to school, and really can make their life so much happier.”

Brooke Marshall is a freelance writer and the author of Lucky: An African Student, an American Dream, and a Long Bike Ride. You can contact her at [email protected]

Photos by Kristina Bird.
Scott Teichmer photo courtesy Summit Pointe

The MI Mental Health series highlights the opportunities that Michigan's children, teens and adults of all ages have to find the mental health help they need, when and where they need it. It is made possible with funding from the Community Mental Health Association of Michigan, Center for Health and Research Transformation, Genesee Health System, Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan, North Country CMH, Northern Lakes CMH Authority, OnPoint, Sanilac County CMH, St. Clair County CMH, Summit Pointe, and Washtenaw County CMH.

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