Handwritten messages such as “You shine,” “Love yourself” and “You are loved,” formed a half-mile paper chain circling the state Capitol briefly last Tuesday morning.
The 13,010 links comprising the Connections of Hope Paper Chain served as a visible reminder of support to teens contemplating suicide. The messages were written by students and teachers at 11 Valley high schools – including Mesa High, which was formally acknowledged for its student body’s efforts.
“This is near and dear to my heart,” said Rachel Brooks, a four-year Mesa High School teacher. “Early on in my teaching career, actually, one of my students took her life. She is forever with me in my memory and I still care for her.
“It was an impactful event for me in that it shaped who I am as a teacher and why I care so much about Connections of Hope and helping students learn socially and emotionally how to be healthy.”
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death for those aged 15-34 in Arizona and overall the state ranks No. 20 in the country for the number of suicides.
In the East Valley, 38 teens have taken their lives since July 2017, according to an unofficial tally.
“Research shows that hope and connection are the main protective factors that help prevent teen suicide and suicide across all ages,” said Nikki Kontz, clinical director of Teen Lifeline, which introduced the chain project.
“Teens need to feel support from their schools, their community, their parents, the larger community and even our policymakers in order to feel safe in their community,” Kontz added.
State Sen. Sean Bowie, D- Ahwatukee, is doing just that with legislation he pushed through this year and was signed into law by Gov. Doug Ducey on Sept. 11. Ducey also declared September teen suicide awareness month.
Bowie sponsored SB 1468, also known as the Mitch Warnock Act, which requires school districts and charter schools to provide training in suicide awareness and prevention to school guidance counselors, teachers, principals and other school personnel who work with students in grades 6 through 12. The law takes effect in the 2020-2021 school year.
“This is personal to me,” Bowie said at the event. “After visiting the over 50 schools in my district in the last two years, I knew there was more we could do here in the state Capitol.”
The law is named after a student at Corona Del Sol High School in Tempe, who took his life in 2016 during his senior year.
Bowie’s bill passed with unanimous bipartisan support.
He also acknowledged the work of Teen Lifeline a 24-hour peer counseling crisis hotline. The nonprofit is the first peer-counseling hotline to receive certification through the American Association of Suicidology.
“The training provides a critical tool to help teachers and administrators identify the warning signs and develop intervention measures before it’s too late,” Bowie said, noting:
“This increased training and support will undoubtedly save lives and create a culture of support and inclusion at all the schools in our state. Suicide prevention really does require the support of the entire community.”
About 15 volunteers and members from Teen Lifeline, showed up at sunrise to connect the 11 piles of chains. Although students from the high schools were invited to attend, none showed up for the event.
Brooks said she wrote a few messages for the Mesa High chain, including “You got this.”
“I love that message,” she said. “Because sometimes life can be overwhelming and kids need to know to take a breath, you got this.”
The students were given a week to write their messages and make the chains, which were in the schools’ colors.
According to Brooks, the project ignited a conversation on the Mesa campus “about hope and how to instill that in others and what it means to be kind and make somebody’s day better.”
As part of the Connections of Hope Paper Chain event, Teen Lifeline challenged high schools to a competition to create the most messages of hope.
Three winners were announced at the event – McClintock High School in Tempe for creating the most handwritten links at 1,937; Phoenix Coding High School for highest ratio of links to students enrolled at 868 and Mesa High School for most handwritten links and highest ratio of links to students enrolled at 1,558. (Highland students created 1,346 links).
Each winner received $1,000, provided by Mercy Care, to be used to create something provides hope on the campus, according to Michelle Moorhead, Teen Lifeline CEO.
After the event, the chains were returned to their schools, where students will be able to remove a message of hope from the chain when they need it.
Kontz said there are stories of teens “needing some of those links and removing them while they were being made because they needed to put them in their back pockets.”
A word of encouragement does go a long way in helping a teen in crisis, according to Jennica Failner, a Teen Lifeline crisis service associate.
The Chandler resident was a volunteer peer counselor when she attended Williams Field High School in Gilbert.
“That is why we do Teen Lifeline,’ Failner said. “It’s a resource for kids to go and talk to other teens so they don’t feel alone. Our big goal is to make sure teens don’t feel alone and this is a whole other way to do this with this chain of hope. They can pick off these chains and read these amazing messages of hope.”