HOULTON – The Maine suicide rate for 15- to 24-year-olds is higher than the national average. A group of students at Houlton High School is working as part of a collaborative effort with their counterparts in four other schools in the state to change that.
Known as Students to Eliminate the Problems of Suicide, the four-member group at Houlton has teamed up with students at high schools in Augusta, Portland, Oxford and Lincoln Academy in Newcastle to produce public service announcements for radio and television, and interactive posters for junior high school-age pupils. The materials will be used to provide resource information to youths who might be considering suicide or to their friends.
“We’re working to get the word out that it’s OK to ask for help when they feel suicidal,” said Holli Nicknair of the People’s Regional Opportunity Program in Waterville, which is overseeing the project. The effort is being funded with a grant from the state Bureau of Health.
“It’s really great,” said Nicknair. “The kids came up with the whole thing.”
A 1992 graduate of Houlton High School, Nicknair said having her alma mater involved is important because “not too many programs from The County get pulled into the statewide process, because they’re so far away.”
The students at Houlton are honest in their concerns about suicide, and just as honest about why they feel the issue needs to be addressed, but often isn’t.
“Adults don’t think it’s going to happen here,” Jacob Callnan, a freshman, said. “They think it’s such a rural place for someone to do anything like that, so they haven’t done much about it.
“They don’t talk about it, so we have to take the initiative,” he added.
Tiffany Harvey, a sophomore, agreed.
“Nobody really wants to talk about it,” she said Wednesday, shortly after members of the team made a public service announcement at radio station WHOU in Houlton. “Nobody wants to make it an issue.
“There are people out there who think about suicide, but there’s no one to talk to,” she continued. “I don’t think the high schools up here [in northern Maine] address it that much.”
According to information from the state, there is plenty to talk about.
Between 1986 and 1995, 285 people between the ages of 10 and 24 committed suicide in Maine. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in Maine for 15- to 24-year-olds.
Members of the Houlton team, under the direction of guidance counselor Sandra Smith, see any number of reasons why teen-agers in the area might try to commit suicide: a lack of things to do, use of alcohol and drugs, a bad home life, or not being in a popular group at school.
“Sometimes they just feel really overwhelmed or they’re trying to be accepted,” said Harvey.
Two members of the team said they personally knew people who had attempted suicide.
Many times, friends are the first ones to hear that someone is thinking about suicide, but they are reluctant to say anything.
“They don’t want to hurt their friendship with that person,” said Harvey. “But if they’re really a good friend, they need to help the suicidal friend. They can’t be afraid to tell.”
That’s why, Callnan said, the message of the STEP program is as much for the friends of teen-agers thinking about suicide as it is for those teen-agers themselves.
“We’re trying to empower the friends because they’re the ones who need to be prepared and know what to do,” he said.
Immediate suicide crisis help is available by calling (888) 568-1112.
Additional information on youth suicide also can be found on the Internet at www.state.me.us/suicide.