Back when I went to summer camp we did pretty simple things. But back then, things just seemed simpler. Today, I’ve been reminded by Dover Sherborn high school sophomore Sophia Katz that young people are facing stress levels that are through the roof and exacerbated by social media, academic pressures, and the high expectations that students try to live up to.
Today, on National Suicide Prevention Day, Katz spent her morning in Wellesley Square writing chalk messages of suicide awareness and prevention. According to the World Health Organization, Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death in teens in America, and in grades 9-12 there are 3,041 suicide attempts every day. 5,723 teens die by suicide every year. These sobering statistics are not generally the kind of things that come up during summer camp conversations. Unless you’re Katz and her friends who, when asked at camp to think deeply about an important topic, rose to the challenge.
Their decision: to work toward suicide prevention and awareness by chalking messages on busy public sidewalks in areas where young people are particularly likely to see them. Today that’s how Katz spent a few hours in Wellesley Square. I’m sure that right now she’s even more convinced that she and her friends are sending their considerable energies in the right direction.
A Dover Sherborn family loses their daughter
That’s because when Katz returned home today from chalking on the sidewalks, she received a message that a classmate’s sister died from suicide over the weekend. The family of the young woman, a talented artist who attended Dover Sherborn High School 2014 – 2017, said in an email that she “…took her own life after suffering many years of debilitating OCD…we encourage the community to pursue greater understanding of severe anxiety and its various manifestations.”
Suddenly, an issue close to Katz’s heart has come very close to home.
She says she first got involved when, “At summer camp we were asked to think of an issue in our lives that we wanted to do something about. We all said the stress teenagers face because of school, social media, and other things and how it impacts their mental health. That led to a conversation about how terrible we all thought teen suicide was and how we all wanted to help prevent it. So we came up with the idea for this project to try to do our part to help in any way that we can.”
Katz and her friends Grace Snyder, a sophomore at Braintree High School, and Ariana Ghafouri and Ellie Hammond, both high school students in Virginia, came up with the idea to raise awareness about suicide prevention by chalking messages on busy public sidewalks in areas where young people are particularly likely to see them. In Wellesley, Katz has chalked her messages in front of the Wellesley College entrance area. The project’s goal is to raise awareness and educate people about the issue of teen suicide.
The sidewalk chalk messages are simple and direct: they list a Suicide Hotline number (800-273-8255); they note that “1 in 5 students have suicidal thoughts” and that there are “123 suicides per day in the U.S”, among other statistics.
Yale University loses one of its own
That the girls came to this project while at a camp on the campus of Yale University, which is reeling from the loss of one of its students to suicide last week, is a poignancy that is not lost on Sophie. “I have not been personally affected, but I understand how terrible and devastating suicide is and want to do whatever I can to help prevent it,” Sophie says. “We’re not professionals ourselves, so we hope to direct people to professionals who can help them through their mental health crisis.”
“We go out to different places and write statistics and facts on public sidewalks where people will walk by,” Katz says. “We also include the suicide hotline number at the bottom of each fact, this could be helpful to people walking by who are actively struggling with suicidal thoughts. By writing facts on public sidewalks we are able to reach and educate a large group of people, this being everyone who walks by our facts.”
And even through the forecast called for rain today, Katz was undeterred. She’s done chalk facts in the rain before, and understands the ethereal nature of her chosen medium. The impermanence of the installation doesn’t concern her. Her hope is that the pain of those who are suffering from mental illness will become impermanent as they receive treatment that can lead to healing. She is hopeful that her messages could lead someone to seek help, and lead others to awareness and sensitivity.
Chalk It Out
Because the girls live a good distance away from one another, it’s not possible for them all to participate on the same installation at the same time, but typically Katz and Snyder go out together and do it. They also post their facts on Instagram and Twitter using the handle Chalk It Out to help them reach an even greater amount of people.
Using chalk messages as a sign of hope is a tool other activists around the country have used to get their message of solidarity and hope across to often marginalized groups. The You-Are-Loved Chalk Message project started in 2005 at Drew University in Madison, N.J. Its goal was to combat hateful speech aimed at the LGBTQ community and send messages of hope to those struggling with depression and/or feelings of isolation or suicidal thoughts. That specific project continued annually until 2012. Since then the mantle has been taken up by others like Katz and her friends, mostly with an emphasis on suicide awareness and prevention.
Katz’s mother, Carolyn D’Ambrosio, says that out of the half-dozen places her daughter has done the project, Wellesley has been the most welcoming. Wellesley’s Director of Public Health Leonard Izzo noted, “It’s so important to raise awareness on this subject locally, which this project is directly doing. Mental health and suicide awareness prevention has been a major focus of the Wellesley Board of Health.”
The town’s mental health webpage has an anonymous online screening tool and a link to a Mental Resource Guide, which lists local, state, and federal resources. “We also have a Community Social Worker available at the Health Department to assist residents in need,” Izzo says.
Veterans are at risk
With the anniversary of the September 11 attacks coming up tomorrow, I can’t help but think about another at-risk group — the nation’s veterans. Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie said in a letter about Suicide Prevention Month that for the country’s 20 million veterans, “…the cost of defending freedom can be tragically high. On average, 20 American Veterans die by suicide each day.”
The Veteran’s Administration, too, is spreading awareness about the risk factors and warning signs for suicide in an effort to help people start the conversation around mental health and support for veterans in their communities. Their “Be There” campaign highlights the risk factors and warning signs for suicide, provides information about mental health and suicide prevention resources, and helps individuals and organizations start the conversation about mental health issues.