State of Despair

Play designed to help youth feel comfortable discussing suicide, feelings of despair

2012-12-09T00:00:00Z 2012-12-12T08:32:06Z Play designed to help youth feel comfortable discussing suicide, feelings of despairBy CINDY UKEN cuken@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

ROSEBUD — It's an original drama production, created and performed by Miles City high school students as part of an innovative suicide prevention campaign.

And, the students are taking their show on the road. First stop: Rosebud.

The “Let’s Talk" campaign is aimed mostly at teenagers, and it's part of a campaign that seems to be working. There hasn't been a known suicide in the Miles City school district since August 2008.

But in nearby Rosebud County — which includes about half of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation — the suicide rate is among the highest in the state.

Lisa Blevins, a counselor and teacher at Rosebud Public Schools, said the district has been fortunate for a long time. “That doesn’t mean that at any time something tragic couldn’t occur," she said. "Life happens.”

She requested a performance of the drama after some students expressed thoughts of suicide, depression and anxiety. She also wanted students to know that suicide and depression are OK to discuss openly.

“There is so much that’s taboo,” Blevins said. “This is a way to put it out there and say it’s real.”

Recently, the 45-minute production unfolded in front of 54 Rosebud students in seventh through 12th grades, and it clearly had the desired effect. Kids were talking.

Minutes after the finale, 13-year-old Aubree Snook confided to a friend that in July her grandmother, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, shot herself in the head. She had never discussed that with anyone.

“It’s something that’s embarrassing,” Snook said. “This is a small town. I don’t have many friends. I’m afraid that as soon as I tell someone they will use it against me.”

Teal Luther, 13, Snook’s friend, had not known. She wished she had.

Schools in Circle and Anaconda also have expressed interest in having the production in their communities.

The suicide prevention campaign uses social media and arts workshops to reach teens. The play addresses the topics of suicide and depression among teenagers.

The performance is one of a number of media workshops with local teenagers that were provided this summer by the Global Healthy Equity Foundation and Montana State University Billings. "Let's Talk" is a community-based media project under GHEF.

The GHEF is a nonprofit philanthropic organization dedicated to making tangible improvements in health care and health education.

“The play has opened a door in the community for creative outlets of personal expression for young people in Miles City,” said Michelle Strain, a GHEF on-site project coordinator from Billings. “It has been very exciting to watch the growth of the participants and this project.”

Scott Rapson, a part-time counselor at Custer County District High School in Miles City, also works part-time for GHEF. He has been instrumental in getting students involved and taking the production on the road.

“It seems like a lot of these small towns are not keeping up with the issue of suicide,” Rapson said. “They’re kind of freaking out.”

Miles City public schools have had some success in reducing their suicide rate. Rapson said he now feels a “huge responsibility” to reach out to other schools to help. He has been collaborating with other counselors across the state.

MSU Billings Student Director Miriam Veltman of Billings spent 10 weeks working with Miles City youth on the project. To create the play, the teens chose materials relevant to the cause of suicide prevention and wrote their own words. The play encourages viewers to become more aware, speak up, seek help or intervene to save the lives of others.

Several of the young actors have had personal experiences with suicide, including Savannah Tailleur, 16, junior; Kyle McGuire, 16, sophomore; and Amanda Letke, 16, sophomore.

Tailleur’s older sister attempted suicide and Tailleur said she was “pretty suicidal” during her seventh- and eighth-grade school years.

“I felt like everyone hated me. I hated the world. Pretty much the only thing going through my mind was suicide,” Tailleur said. “I started to write a suicide letter once" and she considered taking her mother’s prescription drugs.

She tells her story and accepted a role in the play to help others.

“No one hears unless you scream,” she said.

Two weeks after McGuire got involved with the play, his uncle attempted suicide by driving his pickup truck into the concrete pillars at the Custer County Fairgrounds in Miles City.

“Suicide is a really touchy subject,” McGuire said. “I felt this issue needed to be addressed and addressed correctly. It’s happening all the time and it’s really bad, especially here.”

Letke, the sophomore, was 15 when her mother tried to kill herself.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “I couldn’t really pick up on any of the signals.”

Letke agreed to take a role in the production at her mother’s urging.

“I decided that if anybody else is going through this, I would help them, or at least try.”

 -Reportingonhealth.org 

Cindy Uken's reporting on Montana's suicide epidemic was undertaken with the help of a California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship from the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Journalism.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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