In this case, SOS is not a last minute cry for help
For county teens, understanding comes from each other
By Mike Creger
It was a fortuitous bus ride discussion nearly two years ago that led to a student-run peer group in Cloquet designed to keep kids safe from the stressful triggers of adolescence.
“We want to do more” is what Ann Parish remembers students saying on the ride home from a suicide prevention training in Grand Rapids. She is a coordinator for REACH, the countywide mentoring program for teens begun in 2000.
“Things have progressed,” said Raven Sevilleja, a student at Cloquet High School and one of the founders of SOS, the peer-to-peer group formally called Students Offering Support.
There is a lot to a name, Sevilleja said, and students were wary of starting a group that some might perceive as a bunch of kids at the end of their rope and contemplating suicide. There are stigmas, she said.
“It’s about youth advocacy,” Sevilleja said. “We talk about relationships, mental health, all the things young people deal with. We talk about it before it becomes a bigger issue.”
So that includes all of her peers, Sevilleja said. The “suicide” element “was a hurdle,” she said, but now, two years into the SOS program, students across the county are seeing the value in talking about their issues with people their age.
“It has opened my eyes,” Sevilleja said. “I have new friendships, new tools. We all have stress. We all have anxieties. SOS is a safe space to talk about it.”
There are now seven chapters at schools across Carlton County. They usually meet once a week at lunch, with adults like Parish providing a speaker on issues teens face, like finances, health care, relationships. That sparks conversation, and students find they aren’t alone, she said.
“It’s a good strategy,” Parish said. “Young people typically go to other young people.”
There is a QPR approach — question, persuade, and refer — behind the SOS framework. If a student’s issues go beyond opening up with peers, they are steered to professional help, Parish said.
Carlton County has been on the forefront of suicide prevention this decade after a study showed the county’s suicide rate was double that of the state as a whole. It’s why Parish found herself on a bus with Cloquet students returning from a seminar on using TXT4Life, the texting tool for suicide prevention which started in Carlton County but now serves the whole state.
SOS has spread to other schools because it works, Parish said. Surveys from students show that, she said.
“It’s made a difference,” she said. “Some of the stories we hear are heart-wrenching.”
Students feel supported by peers and are given tools to deal with problems, she added. They know that a cry for help can be directed to a professional, she said.
“It’s definitely preventive,” said Shannon Sams, a counselor at Cloquet High School. “Kids respond better to their peers. You’re taking care of each other.”
Sams said students have been brightened by the presence of SOS, telling her it’s valuable because they “can share experiences. There is help and there are answers.”
“You know it’s working because it has grown,” Sams said. “They’re pulling kids in all the time.”
Sevilleja is amazed by the younger people who have come to SOS meetings. It means there will be a legacy of hope long after she’s graduated.
“It makes me happy,” she said.
What is SOS?
SOS chapters can be found at seven Carlton County schools: Esko, Carlton, Cloquet, Fond du Lac, Moose Lake, Wrenshall and at the Cloquet Area Alternative Education Program.
Here is how the group defines itself, on the REACH mentoring website:
– Students wanted to do more about suicide prevention within the school and larger community and partnered with REACH Mentoring to expand their efforts. Together, they created a youth leadership, peer mentoring program: Students Offering Support. The purpose is to foster protective factors that will help youth succeed and thrive and mitigate factors that may contribute to suicide.
– SOS’s mission statement is: “A peer leadership team focused on addressing factors that may lead to suicide.”
The vision statement is: “We are focused on building protective factors and developmental assets with youth to prevent suicides in Carlton County.”
– Protective factors include: access to a variety of clinical interventions and support for help seeking family and community support (connectedness); skills in problem solving, conflict resolution, and nonviolent ways of handling disputes; cultural beliefs that discourage suicide and support instincts for self-preservation.
Weekly SOS meetings are focused on a variety of topics in empathy-building and dialogue via restorative justice practices. It strengthens leadership development and nurtures goal-directed thinking to build social and emotional skills.
Shannon Sams and Dave Bergan, counselors at Cloquet High School, wrote a letter of support for SOS and its impact on the students they see daily.
“The weekly meetings that foster an open and safe environment for our students to talk and discuss real-life issues are critical for our students who need a place to share life experiences,” the counselors wrote. “The safety and confidentiality that has been created has allowed students to be open about the things going on in their lives, so they can process and seek help if needed. SOS is developing assets and building character for our students in a healthy and effective way.”