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Teen death stuns community - School district renews suicide education, prevention efforts

By Mary L. Grady

Last Thursday during morning broadcast announcements, Mercer Island High School interim principal Kathy Siddoway told the student body of the death of a fellow student.

Students soon learned that the teen was popular and outgoing senior Ben Shamis, a tuba-player in the marching band.

Shamis, 17, died April 8. His death was the result of a suicide. One of his kidneys was donated to his uncle, who had been on a kidney transplant waiting list. Ben had often talked of wanting to be a match for his uncle Norman Shamis, said his mother, Sue Shamis.

Most classes and many after-school events were canceled. School officials called in extra counselors and professionals to be on hand for grieving students Thursday and Friday. Students planned and held a candlelight memorial at the amphitheater outside the high school commons Thursday evening. Local clergy, teachers and parents joined hundreds of students in remembering their friend.

Ironically, the school district is poised to renew its efforts on suicide education and prevention at both Islander Middle School and at the high school. Events and training were planned for the very week the death occurred, said superintendent Cyndy Simms. The district was responding in part to the recent suicides of two other young men, both of whom had ties to Mercer Island. One was a former student at Mercer Island High School who transferred to Bellevue High last fall.

Sessions had already been scheduled last week at the high school for more training for teachers and work with students. However, suicide awareness has always been an integral part of the required health curriculum at Mercer Island schools, where counselors tackle the topic beginning with middle schoolers.

School counselor Harry Brown at Islander Middle School said that the focus is to tell students, ``it is OK to talk about this.''

``We need a way to be able to talk about this, even if it is hard,'' he said. ``Kids need to be able to talk with each other when they sense something is wrong. They need to practice how to talk.''

Brown said that people who end their life often see no other way to end the pain they feel.

``Those who are in pain need to know that there is always another way,'' he said.

The program at Islander Middle School goes beyond recognizing who needs help. It is designed to involve peers directly in helping those in need. Classes involve role-playing as well as learn skills to recognize danger signs and know what resources are available. The Natural Helpers program that begins in elementary school is expanded for middle school students, to help them deal with fellow students who are experiencing sadness and hopelessness.

In high school, students are told not only to reach out to others, but also to reason out whom they could turn to for help if they themselves feel depressed and do not know what to do.

``Public awareness of the problem is our first defense against youth suicide,'' said Sue Eastgard, director of the Youth Suicide Prevention Program in Seattle, who has been working with the school district. ``And yet many people don't know how to recognize the signs that a young person is considering suicide and don't know -- or else are afraid to -- confront a troubled teen for fear that their interference might embarrass or alienate or worse, actually put ideas of suicide in their head.''

Mercer Island High School has set a parent education night for 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, April 20, in the high school library to inform parents about the warning signs for depression and suicide. More important, parents will learn when to seek professional help, organizers said.

``It is essential that we break through the taboos and fear of asking for help and reach out at this particular time of sadness,'' said Eastgard, who will be speaking at the event.

The school district will provide crisis counselors as long as needed for the students. Longer-term, the district plans to implement more peer-to-peer education programs for students so that they help their friends who are at-risk.

Sidebar: Recognizing warning signs and suicide prevention

Confidential resources available to students and their families are numerous. Local sources include counselors at the schools, Mercer Island Youth and Family Services, an organization called Teen Link, part of the local crisis clinic network and the Youth Suicide Prevention Program (YSPP) in Seattle at 206-297-5922. Their Web site is www.yspp.org. Each agency has brochures and other materials available to youth organizations, churches and schools.

Warning signs

Behaviors: Past attempts at suicide

Talking about suicide, making plans

Preoccupation with death

Drug use

Depression: Moodiness

Feeling down

Feeling hopeless

Withdrawing

Risks increase: Access to guns

Impulsiveness

No one to talk to

Prevention: Showing you care

Ask the question

Get help

Teen link: 206-461 4922 every evening from 6 to 10 p.m. or 1-800-suicide

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