Agency promotes suicide prevention awareness

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September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and National Suicide Prevention Week runs through Saturday.

All month long, mental health advocates, prevention organizations and community members unite to share resources and stories and promote suicide prevention awareness.

Melanie O’Neal, executive director of Mental Health America of Jackson County, said the organization has been around since 1954 working to provide education and resources about a variety of mental health subjects.

“Our suicide prevention coalition, ALIVE, started late in 2019, and we are going to have yard signs up throughout Jackson County, so keep an eye out for those, and we have those available in both English and Spanish,” O’Neal said.

The 150 yard signs around the county will have the Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll free number, 1-800-273-TALK (8255), on one side and the Crisis Text Line, “Text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor,” on the other side.

“MHA serves all of Jackson County, so be on the lookout for the signs in the Freetown area, Medora, Crothersville, Brownstown and Seymour,” O’Neal said. “We’re trying to really reach more of our rural communities to provide resources through those yard signs.”

She said the coalition has partnered once again this year with Sign Gypsies in Seymour and for a week this month will have a large sign display at the Schneck Medical Center property where the state police post used to be.

“Then we will move the signage to the Brownstown courthouse lawn for an entire week there,” O’Neal said. “We’re just really trying to make people aware about our organization and the resources that we can provide.”

ALIVE was formed under the umbrella of Mental Health America of Jackson County. ALIVE stands for awareness, listening, informative, vigilance and engaged.

The goal is to ensure people know about all of the resources available to them year-round, but especially in September since it’s Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.

Members of the coalition are Melanie O’Neal, Becky Bujwid, Lin Montgomery, Molly Marshall, Heather VonDielingen, Emily Sommers and Kate DuBois.

O’Neal said her eyes were really opened after she watched the documentary film “Reject” and saw the evidence and research of what age group really needs to be reached early on.

“It’s preschool-age children because even when you get to third grade, if you haven’t been taught how to properly resolve conflict and deal with your emotions and feelings, it’s so difficult to change,” O’Neal said.

She was hoping to expand the program and serve additional classrooms, but she said she needed help rowing the boat because she couldn’t keep doing it all by herself. Now, with the help of a committee and a new program director, she has that help.

O’Neal said in the past, seven preschool classes were being served, and now, that number has increased to 37. They have gone from serving 80 preschool-age children to 437.

To help with that effort is Seymour resident Donna Persinger, who came aboard MHA of Jackson County six weeks ago as the program director and facilitator through a one-year ERI Wave 2 COVID-19 funding grant.

Prior to joining MHA of Jackson County, Donna and her husband, David Persinger, adopted some children, and she was a stay-at-home mom for a while.

Later, she began substitute teaching through Seymour Community School Corp.

“One day, I was substituting at Redding Elementary, and it was in the special needs class,” she said. “I don’t know if I would’ve signed up for that, but by being placed there, I just fell in love with those children.”

Persinger believes it was part of God’s plan for her to be in the classroom that day.

“My main project so far at Mental Health America has been the I’m Thumbody Special self-esteem program for the preschool-age children in the county,” she said.

The lessons typically last 30 to 45 minutes. The kids all receive something to take home with them, such as a smiley face folder, stickers or other small item that shows an emotion.

“We believe that good self-esteem begins at an early age,” Persinger said. “If you believe in yourself and have confidence and learn how to deal with your feelings and emotions, then you can train yourself to have control on that throughout life.”

Persinger said another project she will be involved in is Hope Squad, which is just getting started in Seymour, chaired by Celeste Bowman. They are reaching out to other towns in the county, as well.

Hope Squad trains students to recognize suicide warning signs and act upon those warnings to break the code of silence, build positive relationships among peers to facilitate acceptance for seeking help and change the school culture regarding suicide by reducing stigmas about suicide and mental health.

“It’s a school-based peer-to-peer suicide prevention program and is currently active in over 900 schools in the country,” Persinger said. “There is education, training and peer intervention.”

She said the students vote for the peers they would feel confident talking to about a personal situation that might be going on.

“They get a commitment from those students, and then they are trained by the advisers,” Persinger said. “Their parents will also be involved to make sure their students are well aware of what they’re getting involved in.”

Persinger also will be involved with the Crisis Intervention Training team. Grant dollars, a very big chunk of that from the Schneck Foundation, already have been set aside.

The team training would be 40 hours for one full week where the presenters would be mental health professionals from the community.

“Attendees will be police officers, first responders, ambulance personnel, firefighters and Schneck ER staff because they’re the ones treating the patient in a crisis situation,” O’Neal said. “If you haven’t experienced life with someone who has had a mental health diagnosis, you just don’t know.”

The MHA of Jackson County website, mentalhealthamericajc.net, has a list of resources that are available, and there also are free online mental health screenings.

The screenings are designed to help individuals determine if they are experiencing symptoms of a mental health disorder. The screenings include depression test, postpartum depression test, anxiety test, psychosis test, bipolar test, eating disorder test, PTSD test, parent test, youth test, addiction test and a work health survey.