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Focus on the Family announces 'Alive to Thrive' teen suicide prevention program

The Gazette - 1/20/2019

With its mission of “helping families thrive” in mind, Christian ministry powerhouse Focus on the Family has developed a teen suicide-prevention program designed to get parents, coaches, pastors, youth leaders, teachers and other adult mentors in children’s lives to lead the talk and the walk.

“We want the common person to be equipped, to notice certain behaviors, to know about mental health, to understand what it means to be a healthy community before suicide becomes a topic,” said Danny Huerta, vice president of parenting for Focus on the Family.

A study by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office released this month labeled the alarming increase in teen suicides an epidemic. The problem has resulted in a host of mental health-related programs at schools and more funding for assemblies, workshops, family nights and additional school counselors and psychologists, in an attempt to reverse the trend.

But schools alone can’t shoulder the responsibility of helping children understand the value of their lives and handle the pressures of adolescence, say leaders of Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family who were involved with creating “Alive to Thrive.”

“It’s got to start at home,” said Joannie DeBrito, the organization’s director of parenting and youth and a licensed clinical social worker for 30 years with extensive experience in crisis and trauma counseling.

“Parents are with their children their whole lives,” she said. “Teachers come and go through kids’ lives. To put the pressure on teachers and coaches to have that responsibility isn’t fair. They are part of raising our children, but we need to take the greatest responsibility.”

Cyberbullying, mental illness, substance abuse, divorce and other difficult home situations, low self-esteem, questions about identity and other issues can adversely affect the will to live for teens whose brains aren’t yet fully developed, the experts say.

Social media is often labeled as the top contributing factor in youth suicide, DeBrito said. “It’s cited in everything you read and is so dangerous,” she said. “There’s an opportunity for parents to have a significant effect by taking the time to monitor screen use and pay attention.”

Having adults around that kids can talk to when they’re having trouble coping or navigating is identified as a top protective factor in many studies for warding off suicidal ideation.

The spike in teen suicides in El Paso County in 2016 was “a wake-up call,” said Steve Johnson, vice president of content development and integration for Focus on the Family.

Staff and colleagues were touched in particular by several deaths by suicide in schools in northern El Paso County, where the ministry’s headquarters is and where employees are involved in the schools, churches and the community, he said.

“Family issues evolve as culture and society evolve, and it’s the heart of our mission to deal with such issues,” Johnson said. “We thought it would be irresponsible if we didn’t equip other people with the ability to understand the signs and how can I intervene.”

The organization spent a quarter of a million dollars to produce “Alive to Thrive,” which was underwritten by donors, Johnson said.

The multimedia program features 18 clinical experts from around the nation addressing the best defenses against suicide, including issues that make children vulnerable, such as mental health, the impacts of technology, problem behaviors and other facets.

In addition to the six-session written material, the program features podcasts and YouTube videos with stories of teens who attempted suicide and their perspectives, along with roundtable discussions featuring teens and parents who have lost children, and question-and-answer sessions with experts. The key message: Every life has meaning, purpose and value.

“We hope this creates a sense of belonging in families and in communities,” Huerta said.

The program is being offered for free. While it’s biblically based, it shouldn’t be offensive to people who are not Christian, said DeBrito: “It’s honoring the Christian faith without being marginalizing or exclusive.”

The program does present a spiritual component to teen suicide that isn’t addressed by public institutions bound by government regulations.

“Faith plays an integral role in giving a young person hope,” Johnson said. “If they don’t have an anchor, they’re more likely to make that attempt.”

The program also is strongly prevention-oriented instead of focusing on intervention and reaction, DeBrito said, “so this next generation won’t be dealing with this.”

Much of a young person’s value today is about performance, she said.

“Our kids are ridiculously overstressed,” DeBrito said. “It’s not good enough to have a 4.0 GPA, it has to be a 4.6; you can’t just be in the orchestra, you have to be first chair; and you have to have 10,000 friends on social media and all these societal and cultural practices get kids worrying about their identity and struggling.”

Some kids think it’s cool to test death, Huerta said, and others feel influenced by a friend’s suicide.

“It makes it a potential option — someone else did it, why can’t I exit that way?” Huerta said. “Sometimes, it’s a way to get back at people. They have anger. They’re all just really hurting on the inside.”

Many who attempt suicide don’t want to die, DeBrito said.

“They’re just trying to get their emotional pain to stop,” she said. “When you talk to kids who have tried to commit suicide, they’ll say I’m so glad I didn’t succeed, I’m still here.”

Instead of skirting the issue, parents and other adults in children’s lives who observe some of the warning signs need to ask the question, “Are you thinking about taking your life?” Johnson said.

“Part of this program is attacking it head-on,” he said.

Youths are exposed to suicide through video games, social media and movies, but “don’t have anywhere to process it because no one wants to talk about it,” DeBrito said.

The biggest response from parents whose children have died by suicide is, “We didn’t see it coming,” said Johnson.

Among its teachings, the program presents “subtle signs,” he said, such as a child being incredibly generous, which can indicate “they’re in a dark place and preparing to end their life.”

As adults learn more about youth suicide and how to talk about it before a crisis occurs, they can teach their children to notice when classmates may need an encouraging word, a smile, a high-five, a friend to sit with, Huerta said.

“We’re all part of that building up of others,” he said.

Program development began in 2017, and Focus on the Family released “Alive to Thrive” two months ago.

Churches, groups of parents and individuals are using the material, organizers said.

James Sayler, a retired Colorado Springs School District 11 foreign language teacher and founder of Porch Swing of Colorado Springs, a group for people who want to discuss ideas to make public schools work well, thinks parents need to work more with teachers on all aspects of schooling, including suicide prevention.

“As a whole, we’ve lost that ability to work together,” he said. “The loss of adulthood itself is the problem. We don’t model good adulthood, we don’t set good examples, and children want strong, positive adults in their lives.”

The “Alive to Thrive” material includes Focus on the Family’s signature “Seven Traits of Effective Parenting” and discussion questions.

“It’s a holistic approach that keeps in mind the social factors, the spiritual and ethical factors, the hopelessness, the lack of foundational values that drive a young person to say I don’t belong here,” Johnson said.

Christian rock band King and Country produced a song about suicide, “God Only Knows,” and did a video promoting “Alive to Thrive.”

“I don’t want this to come across as we’ve figured out the answers,” DeBrito said. “It’s a complicated issue with social, biological and environmental roots. We wanted to provide hope.”

The program is available at https://alivetothrive.focuson thefamily.com/program.