Grassroots launches suicide prevention campaign in Howard County high schools

  • Cathy Smith, left, Howard County Public Schools outreach coordinator, and Nicole DeChirico, director of crisis intervention services at Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center helped pilot and launch the Don't Do Nothing suicide prevention campaign in Howard County high schools.
Cathy Smith, left, Howard County Public Schools outreach coordinator,… (Kim Hairston / Baltimore…)
September 03, 2014|Karen Nitkin | For The Baltimore Sun

In one scene, an empty chair sits in the middle of a student art class, a blank sheet of paper on the easel in front of it. In another, an empty seat is surrounded by students playing flutes and clarinets. Then in a roomful of chess matches, one student is seated at a gameboard but missing an opponent.

The message at the end: Don’t let there be another empty seat.

The video, developed by the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center and shown to Howard County high school students, is appropriately named “Empty Seats,” and it’s part of a campaign called Don’t Do Nothing, which educates students about the signs of suicidal thoughts and urges them to intervene if they suspect a friend is in trouble. It also encourages students to raise money for Grassroots, which operates a 24-hour crisis hotline.

“The whole point of Don’t Do Nothing is, if someone says something that concerns you, don’t wait,” says Nicole DeChirico, director of crisis intervention services for Grassroots, the Columbia-based 24-hour emergency shelter and crisis resource. “We know anxiety and novel situations sometimes stop people from accessing the services they need.”

Suicide is a serious issue, particularly among teens. According to a 2011 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 16 percent of high school students nationwide considered suicide that year and 7.8 percent actually attempted suicide. Extrapolating that number to Howard County means there were 1,291 student suicide attempts in Howard County last year, says the presentation.

The Don’t Do Nothing campaign is part of Grassroots’ Change Matters program, launched in 2008 to engage students in fundraising to combat homelessness. About a year ago, Cathy Smith, coordinator of the Change Matters campaign, began shifting the focus from homelessness to teen suicide. ¿

“In the last five years, the untold number of young people that have died by suicide has been just awful,” says Smith, who handles outreach and fundraising for Grassroots as an employee of Jean Moon & Associates, the communications and public relations firm.

The company created a presentation that combines elements of PowerPoint and video, including the “Empty Seat” video. In the spring, the Don’t Do Nothing presentation was shown at River Hill High School to a student group called Active Minds, part of a national group dedicated to improving perceptions of mental illness. 

“I … got a lot of great feedback from the kids,” says Smith. When the presentation ended, the students sat in stunned silence for a minute or two, she says.

This school year, she hopes to bring the presentation to as many high schools as possible, spurring both fundraising and awareness. One idea is to set up competitions between schools that are football rivals, with students raising as much money as they can in the week before the football game. Eventually, Smith would like to visit every high school in Howard County, showing students the presentation and engaging in discussions about suicide and awareness. 

DeChirico says intervention saves lives. 

“You can have a single suicidal crisis in your lifetime and never be suicidal again,” she says. 

One famous study from 1978 tracked 515 people who had stood on the Golden Gate Bridge, ready to jump, but were physically restrained or talked out of it. Of those, 90 percent did not commit suicide later in life, underscoring the temporary nature of the suicide impulse, says DeChirico.

“We feel like we’re the best first call you can make,” says DeChirico. “If we’re not the best place, we’ll get you to the right place. Really, we are hopeful that by training other people of what to look for, it will increase help-seeking behavior in the future.”

The presentation tells students: “Don’t Do Nothing. When friends are in trouble, call Grassroots.” It urges them to take out their cellphones and program in the number, 410-531-6677.

“We want to empower kids,” says Smith. “Don’t think that you can’t change the course of somebody’s impulsive decisions. Don’t think you can’t make a difference. You are the friend, you are the person who knows this person the best.”  

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