Tie a Yellow Ribbon… Before it’s Too Late

By Sandra Zunino

A tragic solution to a temporary problem, suicide is too often the response for teenagers who experience an overwhelming sense of despair. Not only is suicide the third leading cause of death for teenagers, it’s the second leading cause of death for ages 15 through 19.

Due to chemical changes in the brain due to stress and hormones, teenagers are particularly susceptible to depression and suicidal thoughts. Experts estimate that one out of eight teenagers suffers from depression. Untreated depression is the number one cause of suicide.

Alarmed by these statistics, the Talbot County Board of Education instituted the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program in 2004. Dale and Dar Emme in Colorado founded the national program in 1994 after their teenage son committed suicide.

Mike Emme shot himself inside his beloved yellow mustang just seven minutes before his parents pulled into the driveway behind him: a heartbreaking end for a youth who couldn’t find the words to ask for help. Designed to prevent teen suicide, more than 2,500 teen lives have been saved since the program’s inception.

In Talbot County, sixth through twelfth grade students view a presentation on how to be a link and save a life either for themselves or for friends. They are also given yellow bracelets with the inscription, “It’s okay to ask for help” and 1-800-422-0009, a toll-free crisis/suicide hotline.

In addition to the bracelets, students receive a Yellow Ribbon Ask 4 Help card stating that it’s all right to ask for help. It also instructs the holder to listen, take suicide threats seriously and get help for the individual.

According to Rob Schmidt, Behaviors Specialist at the board, since Talbot County adopted the program, at least 21 students used the cards to access help for either themselves or friends.

Research shows that 75 to 80 percent of school-age children who experience suicidal thoughts confide in peers instead of adults, says Rob. While counselors and teachers are trained to help a distressed student, many things happen after hours. “Through awareness, we’ve enabled and empowered the kids,” he says. “We’re training peers to help peers.”

The Talbot County Board of Education received awards and recognition from the National School-Based Mental Health Center at the University of Maryland for taking a proactive stance in their mental health programs.

“It all affects learning,” says Rob. “If kids are not concentrating on problems in their own life, they can concentrate better on school.”

Rob credits School Superintendent Dr. Salmon and Supervisor of Services, Lynne Duncan for supporting the suicide prevention program. “Without these two people, we would not have this program because it is not mandated,” he says. “Everyone has a crisis program after the fact, but we’re one of the few that put efforts into prevention.”

In fact, Queen Anne County Schools do not participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program. Any dramatic changes in a student’s behavior or indications of teen depression; however, are taken seriously, according to Robert Willis, Guidance Counselor QAC High School.

“As counselors, our goals are not just for promoting academic achievement and career development, we promote positive social and emotional growth as well,” he says. In QAC, a Student Assist Program (SAP) and People Services Team (PST) meet regularly to identify and help students who may be at risk. This could be anything from depression to drug or alcohol usage.

Teachers and counselors are ever watchful of disturbing statements written in papers, on book covers, even notes found discarded in hallways. Incidents lead to an investigated with immediate action including parent conferences and connecting to the student to outside services.

For more information about the Yellow Ribbon Program, visit www.yellowribbon.org. For more information about suicide hotlines in Maryland, visit www.suicidehotlines.com/maryland.