But on Saturday, September 9, inside a spectator box above the action, a dedicated group of 150 donors, volunteers and staff from Elyssa’s Mission, gathered for a race of their own.
The Northbrook-based non-profit has held its annual “A Race to Save Young Lives” fundraiser at the Arlington Heights horseracing track for the past 10 years. The organization goes inside public and private schools to educate students, staff and parents on how to recognize and assist those teens most at-risk for suicide, the second leading cause of death among young people ages 10-34.
Joanne Meyer founded the non-profit after her teenage daughter Elyssa, who suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, committed suicide in 2004 at age 16.
“This is part of a spiritual path Elyssa has put me on,” said Meyer. “Every day I’m driven to get to work and reach those kids, like Elyssa, who are at risk and in danger of taking their own lives.”
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention estimates that an American dies by suicide every 12.3 minutes, and that 90% of those people had a diagnosable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death. September 10-17 is National Suicide Prevention Week.
“Suicide has always been an issue among teens, but now more people are willing to speak up and talk about it,” said Meyer. “It’s when we don’t talk about it that lives are taken.”
Since its inception in 2006, Elyssa’s Mission has reached more than 200,000 community members. The organization:
• Funds and implements the evidence-based SOS Signs of Suicide Prevention Program in more than 130 middle and high schools in 70 suburbs throughout Illinois.
• Works in partnership with Screening for Mental Health, a Massachusetts-based organization that pioneered the concept of large-scale mental health screening and education programs.
• Implements all components of the SOS program including planning, teaching and training for staff and parents.
“No longer do schools just want us to come in and make a presentation to students,” said Meyer. “They want a hands-on, comprehensive program.”
Now in its seventh year, Elyssa’s Mission’s SOS universal screening program has identified hundreds of at-risk teens in Illinois and helped them access the counseling they need. North Shore partner schools include Glenbrook North and Glenbrook South High Schools, Fields Middle School in Northbrook, Kenilworth’s Sears School, and Wilmette Junior High School.
At the core of Elyssa’s Mission’s SOS screening program is ACT – the acronym for Acknowledge, Care and Tell – a technique teens can use to identify symptoms that make themselves, or a friend, at risk for suicide.
“On average about 13% of the students who go through our SOS program are in need of intervention, which typically leads to a session with a school social worker,” said the director of education for Elyssa’s Mission, Jodie Segal. “Approximately 50% of those students are then referred on for counseling services.”
Last year alone, Elyssa’s Mission reached approximately 32,000 students in the State of Illinois, identifying 1,900 at-risk students who were referred on for further services – 60 of whom were hospitalized for treatment.
Both Segal and Meyer said the popularity of last year’s controversial television show, 13 Reasons Why, put the subject of teen suicide on many schools’ urgent agenda. The 13-epidsode drama, released on Netflix last spring, portrays a high school student’s descent into depression, which she blames on betrayal and bullying, and which ultimately ends in her suicide. She recounts the reasons she took her life in an audio diary that is delivered to a friend after her death.
“Word about this show spread very quickly through communities,” said Segal. “It raised awareness and provoked discussion among students and parents.”
Segal said depression is the No. 1 risk factor for suicide, and that social media is often a source of bullying, stress and unhappiness for teens.
“There is so much comparison between teens now, namely how many ‘friends’ they have and how many ‘likes’ a post gets,” said Segal. “It’s putting more kids at risk.”
Through its annual “A Race to Save Young Lives” fundraiser, Elyssa’s Mission hopes to generate more than $100,000 to support its hands-on educational programs, as well as its college scholarship program for high school juniors and seniors, awarded to a handful of students each year who have thoughtfully demonstrated how they’ve applied the ACT technique to help themselves or a friend, peer, or community member.
“These are students who can show how this program has benefitted their lives,” said Segal.