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After Losing Loved Ones, Two Cook Children’s Employees Take on Youth Suicide Prevention

Seven in a series. 

Sometimes the first step toward saving the world begins in your own backyard.

That’s the hope for Frances Wampler and Blair Williams, two staffers at the Center for Children’s Health led by Cook Children’s, who are part of a team exploring how communities might target youth suicide as a standalone issue.

There are several “ifs” to contend with, but the two women believe it’s worth exploring the steady climb of youth suicide cases in the nation and determine what’s happening on the local and state levels.

“We see it in the headlines, see it on social media—even clinicians are expressing concern over it,” said Williams, who is a community health analyst and member of the community health needs evaluation team at the Center. “So, we’re seeing this as a rising need.”

Wampler and William’s decision to pursue the issue resulted from a culmination of events. In September, Wampler’s nephew, 19, died by suicide, leaving her family reeling from his death. And years earlier, Williams suffered the loss of a close family friend, a 15-year-old who took her own life. Their shared experiences, along with other data—including the Center for Disease Control’s report marking suicide as the nation’s second-leading cause of death among ages 10 to 24 in 2018 and a reported increase of self-harm cases seen at Cook Children’s last year—propelled the two women to pitch the idea of collaborating on exploring whether area communities needed help with this complicated issue.

“I know how hard it was for me and my family to experience the things we did,” said Wampler, program coordinator at the Center who focuses on child abuse. “He was my nephew, but he felt like one of my bonus kids. I felt like I lost one of my children, and I would take that heartache away from any person I could. I don’t want that to be the end of his story. He was not the last decision he made in his life...he was so much more than that.”

“I just want to do something with that—and I don’t know­­—try to save the world,” she said.

While discussing Wampler’s nephew’s death, she and Williams made note of how often youth suicide overlaps with other issues, such as firearm and poison injuries, child abuse and neglect, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), mental health and so on.

“These are things that the Center already has programming around,” Wampler said. “I was like, ‘We have to do something.’”

The two decided to take it to Center leadership and were given the green light to pursue it and “do some digging on the data,” Williams said.

“They’ve been really supportive of this,” she said. “That, to me, is really powerful because our leaders heard our concerns and supported us in our efforts to keep every child safe from injury.”

Wampler and Williams’s preliminary research efforts could potentially support the 2021 Community Health Needs Assessment. The Community Health Needs Assessment is conducted by Cook Children’s every three years to assess children’s health needs and the board uses the information to develop implementation strategies for addressing these needs.

They’re not sure how COVID-19 may affect this issue, let alone community health needs across the board, but youth suicide was on the rise well before the virus hit, Williams said. In 2012, the number of suicide deaths surpassed the number of cancer and heart disease deaths - causing suicide to be the 2nd leading cause of all deaths in Americans ages 1-44 every year since.

“Part of it is recognizing there are several community partners and agencies that are well-equipped to handle this,” Williams said. “Part of the assessment is not only looking at the data, but it’s also looking at what resources are in the community that can be used to help.”

As it stands, the Center is in the data collection phase of the 2021 Community Health Needs Assessment process. They’ll sift through all sorts of data, such as what local health departments are seeing, what the CDC says, what the national and statewide numbers on children’s health needs show, and what’s happening inside and outside Cook Children’s walls. They’re currently conducting focus groups, a parent survey, a community leader survey, and key informant interviews, among other things. When finished, the data will be synthesized and a report published as the 2021 Community Health Needs Assessment.

Wampler and Williams are proud that the question they raised about what the Center can do to support youth suicide prevention has been met with a team approach to investigate this important topic further. They acknowledge this task is a huge undertaking. But both are passionate about getting help to children and families who need it.

Recognizing that this is becoming more of a trend is an important step, Williams said.

“There are so many great resources in our community, so many great partners. We have a wonderful health care system, a great employer who recognizes this issue. So, what can we do with these great assets and protective factors to keep kids safe from all types of harm, including harming themselves?”

Regardless of their findings and the various factors that come into play, Wampler and Williams believe ramping up awareness surrounding self-harm and suicide is key to preventing it among young people. But awareness doesn’t equate applying stereotypes, they said.

Even if children do “check off those boxes” for suicide risk factors, it doesn’t mean they’ll try suicide, Williams said. She encouraged all families to have a mental health plan to address any crisis that may arise.

“There are people who have multiple adversities and risk factors who lead very successful, healthy lives, and probably go on to help many other people, too,” she said. “It’s just recognizing that it needs more awareness. It can happen to anyone and to be prepared. If you’re in crisis, it’s going to be harder to seek out help. So, have that help lined up for you.”

Wampler agreed.

Normalizing conversations about thoughts of suicide, even if it’s uncomfortable for families, she said, also might help with prevention. Her nephew had supportive friends and family, played football in high school and had joined the military, she said, adding the family “had no idea he was feeling that way.” No one saw his suicide coming.

“I don’t think it’s talked about enough,” she said. “I don’t know how hard that would be to say, ‘I want to hurt myself.’ But you don’t have to suffer in silence. You can tell somebody that you’re struggling and get help.”

There may not be a simple answer to preventing youth self-harm and suicide, Wampler and Williams said. What leads to it and how to prevent it is often muddied by a multitude of factors, some controllable and others not.

But one aspect of it is clear to both women.

“For me,” Williams said, “if we can save one child, well, that is (saving) the world.”

“Yes. That’s right,” Wampler quickly agreed. “That one child is somebody’s whole world.”

About the Joy Campaign

Cook Children's Joy Campaign is a communication initiative that aims to encourage hope and resilience among children and teens.

Joy stands for: Just breathe. Open up. You matter.

The number of children and teens suffering from anxiety, stress and depression is skyrocketing. Sadly, Cook Children's has seen a record number of patients attempting suicide in the past year. The Joy Campaign is a suicide prevention communication initiative led by Cook Children's to bring hope and needed resources to children and families facing struggles and dark times in their lives.

Learn more about the Joy Campaign and available mental health resources here. 

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