Taking Action: Suicide prevention efforts underway to help young people in Alabama

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - May is national Mental Health Awareness month. WHNT News 19 is Taking Action to guide people who need help to the right resources and empower the rest of us to know when and how to help if necessary.

This year, WHNT News 19 announced our involvement with the S.P.E.AK. (Suicide, Prevention, Empowerment, Awareness, Knowledge) Initiative. It's designed to raise awareness about the signs of suicide in middle and high school students and try to stop it. Because, despite what adults may think, it's not always easy being a kid.

Ingesting harsh words daily and pressure to perform can take a toll on kids.

"They are like a weight on your shoulders," describes Arab High School Student Allison Sweeney. "You're always worried about them and you feel like you can't break free of it."

Arab High School students Allison Sweeney and Caleigh Kitchens live it and see their peers deal with it daily.

"Girls put other girls down," explains Kitchens. "It hurts sometimes and especially with social media. You see all these famous people and you're like, 'I want to look like that' but you don't and it's unrealistic and it makes you feel not as worthy."

Many young people deal with intense feelings of unworthiness, sadness, depression and thoughts of suicide. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the third leading cause of death for ages 15 to 24 in Alabama and the fourth leading cause for children ages 10 to 14.

Yet many doctors, like Huntsville based child psychiatrist Aparna Vuppala, wholeheartedly believe a large percentage of those youth have a treatable disorder.

"We need to talk about it more so that we can raise awareness because it's preventable," explains Dr. Vuppala. "We can do something about it."

Alabama law now requires educators to receive youth suicide awareness and prevention training annually. At Arab High School, guidance counselor Cindy Hammond says this school year, teachers got detailed handouts and a first-hand, personal account from two students.

"Our students do have a lot of stress," says Hammond. "The teachers reported back to me that it meant a great deal to them to have two teenagers talking about depression and telling them how as a classroom teacher they could help them or what they could do to help a student."

When it comes to our young people who may be struggling, Hammond believes we all need to be proactive.

"A lot of adults tend to think, 'Oh they're just teenagers so they're just kids' but they really are going through a lot of issues," says Hammond.

With the right help and guidance, on the other side of those issues and hardships is hope. As for Allison Sweeney and Caleigh Kitchens, they believe it starts with ending the silence.

"If we keep putting it on TV and on social media, I believe teens will see it a lot more and it will start having a better impact and more of an impact on them," says Sweeney.

"I feel like if you publicize it more, then people will know that someone is there for you and you can always go to somebody," says Kitchens. "You never know when someone is on the verge of anything and always stay positive with them and be encouraging. I feel like as long as they know someone is there, they can be ok."

We know it can be hard to bring up this topic. How do you do it? If someone outright says something about hurting themselves, how do you respond? WHNT NEWS 19 is Taking Action to help. We've added these documents for you to download or print out that can guide you through those tough situations.

The subject of teen suicide is being discussed a lot more lately after Netflix released a series called '13 Reasons Why'. WHNT News 19 will explore this program's impact on young people. Is it helping or hurting? And how can you start the conversation with your own child? Watch our special report Tonight on WHNT NEWS 19 at 10:00.

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