Nationally renowned mental health speaker Mike Veny brought a message of hope and encouragement to Hillsdale-area high school students.
Nearly 1,700 high school students packed the Roche Sports Complex on Thursday for a presentation on suicide prevention and awareness. Nine area high schools were represented. Youth Opportunities Unlimited Throughout Hillsdale, a program run through Hillsdale County Community Foundation, organized the event as part of a new campaign to help combat suicide and self-harm.
“We’ve seen a really high rise in numbers of self-harm in our area students,” said HCCF President Sharon Bisher. “We’ve had, in the last few years, some kids commit suicide, which has caused some major ripples inside of our schools.”
Bisher said HCCF is not aware of any specific reason behind the rise in suicides, though there are contributing factors in the community.
“There’s always pressures inside the schools. They don’t always have the resources to help that child who is struggling to find a college, find a future, find their way in the world,” Bisher said. “We have a high population of poverty in our community. We also have a high rate of child abuse. And so I think these kids are living traumatic lives and they don’t have the coping mechanism to deal with that.”
Mike Veny, the speaker at Thursday’s event, is familiar with suicide attempts and prevention. By age 15, Veny had been expelled from three schools, spent three different stints in a mental hospital, attempted suicide several times, and was self-harming. He is now married and speaks professionally at high schools and corporate events around the country. His message to students on Thursday was simple.
“When you’re stuck in that bad place — and we all have been there — you can do something about it,” Veny said. “It’s not the end of the world, and you just have to be proactive about it.”
Area students were receptive to Veny’s words and agreed to open the discussion of mental health at their schools.
“It was very eye-opening and it really hit home for me,” Jonesville High School freshman Braxton Wagner said. “I do think it is an issue all around. I think it has a lot to do with cliques and it’s the way people treat others, and just a lack of respect between a lot of people.”
Isabella Jiles, also a freshman at Jonesville High School, said she was struck by Veny’s words on the commonality of mental illness.
“It really hit when he was saying that he wouldn’t be giving this talk about the common cold,” Jiles said. “Because people usually take physical illness more seriously than mental illnesses.”
The campaign aims to start the conversation through two components. The first is a peer group program called Pure Listening Teams. The Pure Listeners are trained in basic counseling skills as well as suicide prevention.
“We want to empower these kids to have a peer-to-peer group that they can go to and have somebody they can talk to in a confidential manner,” Bisher said. “And then, if something arises out of that, then those Pure Listeners have contacts. So they can go and say, ‘I think this student might need some additional help.’”
The second part of the campaign is a social media hashtag, #iwontbesilent, created in partnership with the Jason Foundation, a non-profit organization centered around youth suicide awareness and prevention.
“It’s ‘I won’t be silent when I see someone in need. I won’t be silent if I need help. I won’t be silent when I see bullying and inappropriate rumors and things inside the school,’” Bisher said.
The campaign, Bisher says, is a way to start the conversation about mental health and to bring a message of hope to the students.
“We knew that there was a lot of emotional stress, like depression or pressure to succeed,” Bisher said. “We wanted to create a campaign that would give them some tools to use, to let them understand that there was hope and that there’s not one among them who doesn’t have that same anxiety.”