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As youth suicides rise, Omaha-area high schoolers take steps to help one another
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As youth suicides rise, Omaha-area high schoolers take steps to help one another

The teal T-shirts have been worn on solitary walks.

Groups of masked staff at Hillside Elementary School wore the teal T-shirts while walking a mile outside on a sunny day in January.

The Westside High School boys basketball team wore the teal T-shirts with the purple ribbon on the front while warming up for a game. “Your Story Isn’t Over,” the shirt says. “Choose Life.”

The T-shirts are part of a project created by three Westside seniors who wanted to bring the community together to raise awareness about suicide during a time when physically bringing the community together isn’t possible.

So Elizabeth Harding, Madalyn Diprima and Jillian Snow created a virtual suicide awareness walk. In January, Westside families could pay $3 to enter the virtual walk and email a photo of themselves doing the walk in the teal T-shirts. The girls also set up a GoFundMe page to raise money.

The walk started as a project for DECA, a competitive business, marketing and community service club. The students said it took them less than 10 minutes to find their topic.

In the middle of a pandemic — with quarantines, occasional online school, the cancellation of events like prom, and in-person schooling that is far from normal — nothing seemed more important than mental health and suicide awareness.

While adult suicides in Douglas and Sarpy Counties declined from 2019 to 2020, the opposite was true for children. Youth suicides doubled in that time.

Last year, the executive directors of two nonprofits, Julia Hebenstreit of the Kim Foundation and Gene Klein of Project Harmony, wrote an editorial in The World-Herald encouraging the community to come together to support children in the area.

“We must all reach out to the youth of our community with positive, helpful messaging along with the services and connections they desperately need right now,” they wrote.

The Westside seniors said the topic of mental health has come up more among their peers since they started the project. The girls said they’ve started asking friends and classmates deeper questions about how they’re doing and pressing for answers beyond “fine” and “good.”

“That’s the one reason I hate masks,” Harding said. “You can’t smile at someone. You have to get all of your expression from your eyes.”

The girls also asked Debby and Doug Fehr to speak to Westside students about their son, Joe Fehr.

Joe Fehr was a 2016 graduate of Westside who went on to play soccer at Drury University. His college coach called him the glue that held the team together and who wanted nothing more than to make everyone else feel happy.

Joe Fehr’s parents said he would spend hours visiting his grandparents, was friendly with neighbors, had friends on soccer teams all across the metro area and was always up for adventure.

He died by suicide in 2018.

“His story is his life,” Debby Fehr said. “His story is not the ending.”

When talking to the Westside students, the Fehrs said they wanted to destigmatize mental illness and encourage them to seek help if they need it.

“They’re never alone,” Debby Fehr said of her message to the students. “No matter what they’re thinking, there are so many people that love them and need them. The world needs them. Tomorrow needs them.”

More than the money raised through the GoFundMe or the competition, Snow said she hopes that the project starts a conversation and encourages people to reach out to people who seem down or who might be having a bad day.

“We’re all more aware of asking people how they’re doing, and that’s what we hope everyone else can do after this,” she said.

The girls said they’ve learned that if a friend or acquaintance seems down, they should ask if they want to talk to someone.

“Even if they don’t want to talk to you, just reaching out and saying ‘Are you OK?’ — I feel like that is the most important part,” Diprima said.

“Just be there for each other,” Harding said.

At Bellevue West High School, there’s an entire squad of students ready to listen.

For several years, the school has had a Hope Squad, a peer-to-peer suicide prevention program. According to the national organization’s website, members of the group are trained to listen to their peers, show empathy and reduce the stigma of seeking help for mental illness.

Bellevue West Principal Kevin Rohlfs said that in past years, when the community has lost a student to suicide, other students have wanted to step up and do something to help.

Members of the Hope Squad understand that their role is not to counsel or provide therapy to their fellow students but to listen and encourage them to seek help from an adult, Rohlfs said.

The student body is asked to name three fellow students they would feel comfortable talking to if they had a problem. Students who are nominated several times are asked to join the Hope Squad. Typically, there are about 40 students on the squad, 10 for each grade.

Rohlfs said that because of how the members are selected, the Hope Squad is composed of a diverse set of students.

After seeing how it works, Rohlfs believes that there should be Hope Squads at every high school in Nebraska. There are now Hope Squads at Bellevue East and the district’s middle schools.

Rohlfs said he knows that the Hope Squad has saved lives over the years.

“You save one life, and it’s been worth it,” he said.

To learn more about youth suicide prevention, visit MoreTomorrowsNE.org.

If you or someone you care about is struggling, call 800-273-8255 to connect with a trained crisis counselor.


Our best Omaha staff photos of February 2021

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Diving Reflection
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Emily covers K-12 education, including Omaha Public Schools. Previously, Emily covered local government and the Nebraska Legislature for The World-Herald. Follow her on Twitter @emily_nitcher. Phone: 402-444-1192.

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