Community members across Proviso Township are mobilizing support services after the deaths of two area high school students in less than a month.
The students were both 15-year-old sophomores who attended Proviso East and lived in Maywood, Proviso Township High School District 209 officials confirmed. One student died on Nov. 22 and another died on Dec. 9, both by suicide, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office.
Although the students are known by community members and school officials, and the name of the first student has been reported by this publication, neither student’s identity will be disclosed in this report, for public safety purposes.
“We’re trying to let students know that we love them,” said District 209 Board President Ned Wagner in an interview on Dec. 12.
Wagner said that counselors have been deployed from D209’s feeder districts to handle what he and other mental health experts are calling a local crisis. Forest Park District 91 sent three social workers to Proviso East—it was the first time Superintendent Louis Cavallo can remember sharing such resources between districts.
“When I learned that there were youth in crisis at D209 and the district needed assistance, of course I offered our support,” Cavallo wrote in an email. “We are ‘One Proviso’ and the wellbeing of all our youth is important to me and to the community.”
On Dec. 12, D209 Supt. Jesse Rodriguez sent out an email to students and families in the district.
“There are no words to describe the grief we are experiencing at D209 as this is the second student we have lost this year due to suicide,” Rodriguez wrote. “Our District is proactively addressing these issues to ensure a safe and secure learning and working environment for all students, staff, and community members.”
Rodriguez said that the district’s Crisis Team “will continue to meet with students individually and in groups over the coming days and weeks to assist them during this difficult time. In addition to our internal support, we are collaborating with external partners to enhance our delivery of services around suicide and mental illness in adolescents, including risk factors and warning signs of suicide.”
In an interview on Dec. 12, Walonza Lee, the program manager for Healthcare Alternative System, a behavioral health services organization that has an office in Broadview, emphasized the need to de-stigmatize mental health challenges, particularly in black and brown communities.
Lee said that people should first “acknowledge that there is a problem without trying to hide it or get angry with the child for not being ‘normal,'” identify what, exactly, the problem is and then “get the help they need.”
Lee said that she went through problems with her own daughter, who was 16 years old at the time that she was experiencing symptoms.
“As a therapist, when my daughter was going through, I initially thought I could fix it,” Lee recalled. “But I realized I had to get help. I first tried a psychotherapy day program, then I stepped back and I became mom.”
Lee also said that there needs to be additional mental health resources and funding for support services in local communities, particularly those of color.
Tandra Rutledge, the director of business development with Riveredge Hospital in Forest Park, encouraged people to look for the immediate signs of someone who may be experiencing suicidal ideations.
“They may talk about wanting to die or about looking for a way to take their life or hurt themselves,” she said. “The person may also talk about being hopeless and having no reason to live. They may talk about being a burden to others and may become isolated and withdrawn. They may even show anger or rage and display extreme mood swings.”
Rutledge said that she recommends school officials consult a free resource book published by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention entitled “After a Suicide: A Toolkit for Schools.”
She added that if young people notice symptoms of suicidal ideation in their friends or colleagues, they should not be afraid to notify an adult they trust, such as a parent, teacher or coach. Riveredge Hospital is “available 24/7,” Rutledge said. People “can call or walk in if they have concerns about a loved one.”
“Let someone know that you’re concerned about your friend,” Rutledge said. “That’s not a sign of breaking a trust. Many times, people experiencing hopelessness and depression want help.”
Rutledge also explained that Proviso Township has social workers “who respond with police officers to behavioral health-related calls.” The program is made available throughout the township by way of Presence Behavioral Health. Call your local police department to identify your local police crisis worker.
District 209 officials said that they have contacted a range of outside experts to provide resources for students. Lee, for instance, said that she and her colleagues were scheduled to present during a school-wide assembly on social and emotional health at Proviso West High School on Dec. 13.
The faith-based community is also helping out, said Bishop Dr. Reginald Saffo, the executive director of the Proviso Township Ministerial Alliance Network (PTMAN).
Saffo, who is also the chancellor of the United Faith Christian Institute and Bible College in Maywood, said that he’s planning a workshop at the college that is designed to teach pastors and lay leaders how to detect mental illness triggers and “how to adequately refer people through the proper channels for help.”
The workshop, which Saffo is hosting along with Cornerstone Christian Counseling, will be on Jan. 26.
“It’s critical that we embrace the whole ethos of community in these times,” Saffo said.
In his letter to parents, Supt. Rodriguez suggested that parents/guardians “contact the school office if you feel your child is in need of additional assistance.”
He added that children “who are already vulnerable may be at greater risk due to exposure to the suicide of a peer,” before recommending that parents call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). This is a free, 24/7 service that can offer support for suicidal individuals or those around them. They can also utilize the Crisis Text Line. Text 741-741 to immediately connect with a trained crisis counselor.
“Call 911, or take your child to the nearest crisis center or emergency department,” Rodriguez wrote.
“If you find social media postings from your own child that are worrisome, please talk with them about your concern and find out what they are experiencing. Please contact us as well, so we can provide additional support.”