Part of what makes SCHA’s Management Academy, a healthcare-focused leadership development program, great at preparing the next generation of leaders is simply getting them in a room together to tackle a common goal. As a requirement for graduation, trainees break out into groups assembled around a broad issue in healthcare and develop a project to address and improve it.
For one recent group in the Academy charged with tackling mental health, their project, and their relationships with one another, quickly became personal. One of the team members had an adolescent son who had recently contemplated suicide. Another member of the group had lost a teen cousin to suicide years earlier. A third also struggled with her mental health in high school. After some emotional recounting of their own experiences, the team decided to turn their attention and resources to a problem that too often gets swept under the rug—teen suicide prevention.
“I have general anxiety disorder,” says Eva Foussat, the Creative Director at SCHA and one of the team members. “I’ve had it my whole life, I just didn’t have a name for it until I was 24.”
Foussat emphasizes the difficulty of grappling with your mental health as a teen, given the rapid hormonal changes and emotional volatility expected of high school students. “I assumed everyone felt this way,” she admits now.
Fellow team member Diana Gurley, a Laboratory Manager at Coastal Carolina Hospital, expressed similar sentiments.
“It’s very easy as a parent to convince yourself that this is normal behavior for a teenager,” she says. “It’s very easy to fall into that mentality and just try and dismiss it. I think that’s why it’s become such a big problem. It’s easy to put yourself in denial because you don’t want to talk about it.”
Another team member, Anita Romano, Administrative Director of Laboratory Services at Piedmont Medical Center in Rock Hill, witnessed firsthand the tragedy of teen suicide when a cousin took his life just shy of his 14th birthday. Even though it was years ago, she still finds the memory heartbreaking.
“When somebody dies of natural causes, you celebrate their life,” she points out, but this isn’t the case when someone commits suicide. “He’s only ever mentioned in hush, guarded tones, and nobody talks about him with [his parents]. The way he died shouldn’t take away all of the positives of his life.”
Having found a shared passion for the topic, the group began researching the issue more in-depth to determine what their contribution to teen suicide prevention could be. The data they found was startling—suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24, which is more than the number who die from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza and chronic disease combined. In South Carolina alone, 483 youths committed suicide between 2009 and 2014, with the number of incidents each year steadily rising.
“Looking at South Carolina-specific data, it was astounding to me how many of our teens choose suicide as a coping mechanism,” says team member Beth Marion, interim clinical director of women and children’s services at Tidelands Health. Marion sees a lot of teens come through the doors of her hospital and still recalls the shock of researching this problem.
“The fact that a South Carolina teen dies by suicide, on average, every other week, was pretty eye-opening.”
“None of us in the group realized just how big a problem it is until we started seeing the statistics in South Carolina,” says Gurley, echoing Marion’s sentiments. “The more we learned, the more involved we wanted to get.”
The group reaching out to the South Carolina Youth Suicide Prevention Initiative regarding developing an awareness project for them. With Foussat at the helm, they produced two social media-ready videos that they hope will make it easier to breach the topic and identify the warning signs in teens. One video is aimed squarely at parents and community members, while the other has messaging directed at the youth themselves.
“This is where they are, this is how they see stuff,” points out Foussat. “These videos also have a longer shelf life then something like a brochure and will hopefully reach more kids.”
The two videos were a hit with their Management Academy class and will be soon rolled as part of a larger social media campaign by the Initiative, but each member of the group feels strongly about continuing to work on this issue. Their shared bond seems to have strengthened their resolve.
“We all share the same passion,” concludes Romano. “It’s so important to be open and talk about mental health issues, like teen suicide, that are not discussed.”