Rajeska Jackson (pictured with microphone) addresses students and community members during a meeting on April 7 at Proviso East that was designed to brainstorm ways of preventing another student's suicide. | Photo provided

Residents in and around Proviso Township are groping for solutions after yet another 15-year-old Proviso East student from Maywood died by suicide — the third 15-year-old East student from Maywood to die by suicide in less than six months.

The most recent suicide happened on April 5. The victim was an African-American female who was a member of the girls’ basketball team at the high school.  

In November 2018, a Hispanic female, also a member of the girls’ basketball team at East, committed suicide. Her death was followed by the death of a Hispanic male who lived in Maywood, attended East and took his life last December.

“We look at this as a community crisis,” said Rajeska Jackson, a Proviso Township High Schools District 209 employee and co-founder of the nonprofit Best of Proviso Township, which helped facilitate a community meeting held April 7 at Proviso East.

The meeting followed a Saturday night vigil for the 15-year-old held in front of her Maywood home, attended by D209 administrators, faculty, staff and board members, along with clergymen and other community leaders.

Many of the estimated 100 people who packed Proviso East’s Social Room on Sunday shared their own mental health challenges.  

“I’m a six-year active duty military veteran,” said Anthony Clark, an Oak Park teacher and community activist who founded the nonprofit Suburban Unity Alliance to address issues of racial equity and social justice.

“I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” he said. “I was diagnosed in 2007, when I was shot and when I saw my best friend in the service shot right in front of me. I’ve seen death. I’ve seen violence. I’ve had to engage in violence. Many of the symptoms I experience as an individual living with PTSD — from depression to anxiety to hyper-vigilance to violence to apathy to numbness to an inability to truly communicate and build relationships — I’m seeing in our youth. But I was in a war zone.”

Clark said people should stop stigmatizing mental illness and the many forms of treating it. He said he attends therapy each month “and I’m proud to say that.”

“I was her,” said Regina Dillard — a Proviso East alum and the owner of Inner Sanctum Wellness, a holistic health business — in reference to the young girl who died last week.

Dillard said her family has a history of clinical depression that “nobody wanted to talk about,” adding “we do ourselves, our children a disservice when we don’t talk about it.” Dillard explained that depression “is not who [a person is],” but a condition that people experience.


Posing solutions

The meeting’s facilitators, Jackson and Best of Proviso co-founder Randall McFarland, encouraged attendees to write down their proposed solutions on a large sheet of paper placed at each table. Those ideas, the facilitators said, will then be shared out with people who listed their contacts on a sign-in sheet.

There was no shortage of ideas, which ran the gamut. Churches should work together and open their doors more often to young people. Schools should be open during Spring Break. Parents should be more vigilant when monitoring their kids’ social media accounts for signs that a child is considering suicide or going through a depressive episode.

The communities need more mentors, and more facilities should open their doors to organizations that offer mentoring activities, said Sonja McCoy, director of Eternal Light Youth Services, a Maywood-based nonprofit organization that offers a variety of programming for area children.

District 209 Supt. Jessie Rodriguez urged those in the room to address the current crisis with an all-hands-on-deck attitude, explaining that “the bureaucracy of schools” makes community coalition-building “harder to do.” Rodriguez said the community and district-wide response to each suicide has grown progressively.

“The first time this happened to us we mobilized the community and got support services for students that included mental health professionals,” he said. “The second time, we engaged community members. We wrote a grant, got about $75,000 and we’re working with about six agencies. This opportunity now will be something different. This will be an opportunity to engage with you and your groups in doing something outside of the scope of what we’re doing now [because] this cannot just be a meeting. There has to be action behind this.”

In a statement, Rodriguez explained that the meeting allowed community members to come together to help young people, many of whom “don’t often get mental health treatment because they’re unaware how to get help or simply can’t afford it.”

He added that the district is “aware of the stigma around seeking mental health, which causes people to delay seeking care.”  

Maria-Elena Agrela, who runs the district’s truancy program for students who are credit deficient, said she had planned to host a suicide prevention training program for students and staff on April 9. The training, she said, had already been scheduled before this most recent suicide happened.

Agrela committed to planning a community-wide suicide prevention training for district parents and other residents in the future.

 ‘Be paranoid’

Some attendees said the community must prioritize actively and aggressively listening to, and engaging with, young people.

“I would like to hear from the kids,” said Arnettra Barber-Burnside, a Maywood Park District Commissioner. “What’s going on with them?”

“We need to get some young people in the room,” said Barbara Cole, the founder of the nonprofit Maywood Youth Mentoring.

D209 board member Della Patterson, who said she has been in regular communication with the young victim’s family since the April 5 tragedy, explained that adults “have to listen to young people verbally and non-verbally.”

Cassandra Taylor, a 28-year Army veteran who conducted training in suicide prevention during her military tenure, said people shouldn’t “be afraid to ask questions,” but they also “have to know what to say” if they get a response that indicates a person is considering suicide.

The signals can be multiple and diverse — from the act of giving away valuables to talking about death.

“When you see these signs, talk to your kids,” Taylor said, adding that parents should not make children “feel like they’re different” or that their reasoning for considering suicide is not legitimate.

“Don’t downplay anyone’s reason,” she said, urging parents to “put down the phones” and “pay attention” to the indicators.

McFarland echoed Taylor’s observation, pointing out that “every last one of [the students who died by suicide], when you go through their pages, the signs are there. There’s no more call me later. No, you’re coming with me right now. You’re talking to me now. Be paranoid. Pay attention to social media and reach out to a student.”

Tandra Rutledge, the director of business development at Riveredge Hospital in Forest Park and an expert in suicide prevention, said one in six teenagers have thoughts of suicide.

“That’s the sad news,” she said. “The good news is that not every teenager who has thoughts of suicide attempts suicide or dies by suicide, but we need to know those young people who are just thinking about it. There are individuals who are thinking about it who won’t ever attempt. They live in this pain.”

Rutledge, who said she’s a youth coordinator at her church, recommended that churches and other organizations educate youth workers about the signs of suicide and implement points of contact, systems, policies and procedures for helping those who have suicidal thoughts.

“Most people, if you ask them, don’t want anyone they know to die by suicide, but most people just don’t know what to do,” she said. “We have to teach one another what to do in situations like this.”

Rutledge explained that “risk factors,” such as social isolation, increase the likelihood of suicide while “protective factors,” such as a “feeling of connectedness,” decrease that likelihood. Proviso Township, she said, has no shortage of protective factors.

“The resources exist,” she said, explaining that community organizations need to stop working in silos, and instead connect and collaborate.

McFarland said another community meeting is scheduled to take place later this month, with a tentative date set for April 27. For more details about the upcoming meeting, visit Best of Proviso Township’s Facebook page.

If you or a loved one is contemplating suicide, 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. You can also utilize the Crisis Text Line. Text 741-741 to immediately connect with a trained crisis counselor.