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Thoughts from the third annual Suicide and Mental Health Awareness Summit
South Forsyth High School students Hannah and Charlie Lucas recently talked about the notOK app, a “digital panic button” which sends messages to five pre-selected friends or family members saying the sender is not OK and needs someone to talk to, at the third annual Suicide and Mental Health Awareness Summit. - photo by Kelly Whitmire

In front of a crowd gathered at the Forsyth County Conference Center at Lanier Tech on Tuesday, Forsyth County Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills asked who in the audience had been impacted by a family members’ suicide or mental illness. The majority of the crowd stood up.

“I think it’s by standing that you end the stigma,” Mills said. “I think that it’s by taking a stand that you help other people to see that you’re not ashamed of it, and that it affects all of us, it affects everyone. It’s through doing that that we’re able to have what we have today.”

The meeting, the third annual Suicide Prevention and Mental Health summit, brought together speakers from schools to public safety to mental health professionals to learn how to go “From Stress to Success.”

During the meeting, a variety of speakers spoke about what they or their organization were doing to promote mental health and provide resources for those facing issues, along with giving some advice for those in attendance.

Let someone know

The youngest, and most energetic, of the evening’s speakers were siblings Hannah and Charlie Lucas, creators of the notOK app, a “digital panic button” which sends messages to five pre-selected friends or family members saying the sender is not OK and needs someone to talk to.

“Contacts are important, because friends and family members are usually the first ones to know when something is off, even by a little bit,” said Charlie.

The siblings said the app has had more than 80,000 users who have sent over 52,000 notOK alerts. The app has been endorsed by groups including Mental Health America, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation and others.

Given that level of success, the app will soon make its ways to other languages and countries.

“We’re also creating Spanish and French translations for the app, and we plan on expanding to Canada, the UK, Ireland and Australia with an estimated projection of over 600,000 downloads by the end of next year,” Hannah said, “and that’s only if we reach 0.5 percent of our target market.”

Before leaving the stage, they asked everyone in the crowd to turn to their neighbor and ask how they were doing and giving honest answers in response.

Making a plan

Walker Tisdale, director of suicide prevention for the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, detailed some of the state’s offerings for suicide prevention, such as offering six regional field offices around the state and an upcoming strategic plan.

“Every state that is really serious about suicide prevention work generally commits to plan,” Tisdale said. “We have done so year after year since 2001. As a matter of fact, Georgia was the first one in the nation to have a statewide suicide prevention plan.”

That plan will use information from mental health professionals and volunteers in the state to set objectives.

DBHDD offers prevention, intervention and post-intervention suicide service, including a screening program for youths 10-24 for referrals to a risk group, which has served more than 4,000 young Georgians.

Tisdale said one issue with coming up with plans and programming is a relative lack of information on suicides.

“The research in suicide prevention really only goes back to the 1980s, late-70s,” he said. “When you think about that, there’s not a lot of research that we have in terms of decades and decades like heart disease and cancer, right? So with that, we need to make sure the folks that do have responsibility for screening, that they’re the highly-trained folks.”

Changing minds

One area in Forsyth County that has received an increase in support in recent years is the mental health of first responders, or police, firefighters and EMTs.

Forsyth County Fire Department Div. Chief Keith Pertschi said in 2013 when he heard about an Atlanta firefighter committing suicide in her fire station, he never thought the issue would reach Forsyth County.

“I was asked to put together a class for firefighters and thought, ‘There is no way this is a problem for us. Our pedigree in the fire service is well over 200 years old. When our recruits start training, we train them hard. We want them hard physically, we want them hard mentally because when they show up to your worst day, we want them to have their best day,” he said.

Pertschi said teamwork is drilled into firefighters but “when they find themselves alone, that’s when the damage starts.” He said more firefighters die by suicide than line-of-duty deaths.

“We have to change our culture,” Pertschi said. “It’s very hard to change over 200 years of pedigree, so we struggle with that when we teach our people that it’s OK to not be OK. We have to teach them that you are not alone. We have resources now, we have people that are willing to help.”

On the law enforcement side, Forsyth County Sherriff’s Office Sgt. Terry Hawkins said on average an officer will see 188 incidents involving death, the threat of death or serious injuries during their career. Those experiences can leave a mental impact.

“As compared to the general population, one study shows that our rates of suicide for first responders are about 30 percent higher than the general population,” Hawkins said. “As a matter of fact, for law enforcement, our greatest cause of death in 2018 was suicide.

Considering kids’ issues

Forsyth County is renowned for the excellent schools in the local system, but having such high achievement can cause stresses for students.

Jeannie Jannot, author of ‘The Disintegrating Child’, spoke about students who are considered intelligent and coast through lower levels of school but “hit a wall” in their academic careers.

“These are the kids who love school, early on in particular, elementary school and middle school, just showed up, did their homework in class or on the bus, could get As on their test without studying or with very little studying,” Jannot said. “So, what happens? As students encounter more and significantly more school work, they inevitably reach a point where they can no longer manage it easily. I call this the rigor tipping point.”

Jannot said that point in a student’s academic career, which often comes in eighth or 10th grades or once going away to college, creates “a perfect storm of internal and external pressures” as grades drop, which negatively impacts students’ self-esteem and self-perception, which leads them to be less interested in school work.

She said some of the factors in whether or not a student will be impacted include their personality, their intellectual ability, relationships and coping methods. Time management, study skills, mindset and meeting physical needs, like getting enough sleep, can help combat those issues.

“Honestly, my gut tells me the biggest thing we need to be doing, and this is the perfect place to put that out, is that we need to be thinking about what is success, how do we even define success,” Jannot said. “We live in an achievement culture. The last 20 years, parenting culture, education culture, society in general, has said, ‘What does your data say about you?’… that’s not OK.

“We need to somehow figure out how do we get to a point where success isn’t the stuff that’s important? When I think of education, I’m one of those lifelong learner-type people. I want curiosity, I want learning, I want to grow in my education, and that’s where we need to get back to for our kids