Southwest suicide-awareness effort hits close to home

Death of a classmate inspires students to stage sweeping, successful prevention effort

Tom Driscoll hopes everyone understands the significance of the accomplishment of students at Southwest High School.

The students, along with school administrators, raised $10,000 to promote the suicide-prevention efforts of the SAVE (Suicide Awareness/Voices of Education) organization during the school's annual "BLAST" fundraiser.

"The students need to know what they did is healing for suicide survivors," Driscoll said.

"I know because I am one."

Driscoll's daughter Sheena would have graduated from Southwest this June. She took her own life just before the start of the school year last August.

"It's been a rough year," said senior Tom Broder, Southwest's student council president. "[Sheena's death] affected a lot of students."

A cause close to home

Each spring for about 14 years, students at Southwest have held a weeklong "BLAST" event to raise awareness -- and money -- for a charitable cause. "BLAST" stands for "Be Loving and Sharing Together." Chosen by student council leadership, causes in past years have included runaway youth and hunger. But this year's event - to honor the memory of Sheena -- had a deeper resonance for the students.

Broder said that, despite being hit hard by the death, the school hadn't really done anything in a formal way to talk about the larger issues around suicide. So when time came to choose this year's BLAST theme, the choice was obvious.

It's an issue that touched the students deeply, said Andrea Benzschawel, a junior who also serves on the student council.

"When you're young, you feel so invincible," she said, and Driscoll's death "affected everyone."

During a week in April, the school hosted a dance, carnival and football game and created a video. For each BLAST event, students paid to attend and participate.

Benzschawel and Broder, with student council representatives Anne Meyer, Dave Premack, Jesse Marks and Ali Toomey, did the bulk of the event organizing.

Students set a fundraising goal of $4,000, and exceeded it by another $2,000. Four school administrators - Principal Dawn Allan and assistant principals Sue Mortensen, Joel Ortega and Mary Michael Connolly -- each wrote a check for $1,000 to bring the total to $10,000. The money was presented to a SAVE organization representative at a pep fest which capped the week's activities.

"Bar none, this was the most successful BLAST ever," said Connolly.

SAVE's mission is to educate the public about suicide prevention and speak for suicide survivors. It's the organization behind a billboard campaign featuring the stories of suicide victims and the message "the #1 cause of suicide is untreated depression."

SAVE has also developed a school-based suicide prevention program. Speakers train school staff, students and parents to recognize symptoms of depression and the warning signs of suicide.

Talking about depression

As impressive as the fundraising efforts are, education may be the most lasting effect of Southwest's BLAST week.

Speakers from SAVE visited Southwest to talk with students about depression and suicide. "Depression is an illness that doesn't get talked about," said Benzschawel.

She said she's seen the illness in classmates and even friends, and that it's a lot more common than adults realize. She said that she knows people who "keep it hidden."

She said the opportunity to talk about the disease was important. After one event, she said a group of students approached the speaker about getting help. The message they heard, she said, was "you're not the only one."

She said that many students didn't realize medication and professional help really can make a difference.

Broder agreed that the event was very well received among students, and inspired some to hold large discussions about depression. "I think we've gotten through to some people," he said. "People need to know about it."

Tom Driscoll, an Armatage resident who's survived the suicides of two sisters as well as his daughter, wants young adults to know that, in most cases, depression can be screened for and successfully treated. And that's one of two messages he hopes the students at Southwest hear.

The other message is that they created something of lasting value.

"In today's angry world we chase prosperity instead of finding our abundance. And there's a difference," he said. "Young adults tend to understand that better than adults. And that's what these young adults did. They got it.

"They can feel good about what they did. What they do is valid."

SAVE (Suicide Awareness/ Voices of Education) 7317 Cahill Road, Suite 207 Edina, Minnesota 55439 952-946-7998 www.save.org