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Film brings attention to teen suicide

Tribune - 8/28/2023

Aug. 28—Since she lost her son Tyler Hedstrom in July 2017, Sheila Hedstrom-Pelger has been committed to raising awareness on teen suicide prevention and education.

Her son grew up in San Tan Valley and attended Combs High School. He was a skilled drummer who played in his school's marching band and briefly toured with the band Anarbor.

Recently, Hedstrom-Pelger donated money to the Rotary Club of Queen Creek to help bring a film screening of "My Ascension," a film that tells the story of suicide survivor Emma Benoit.

The film screening is Wednesday, Aug. 30, in the Queen Creek Community Chambers.

The Rotary Club is also working with national youth advocate and speaker Katey McPherson and Bark for Schools. This artificial intelligence app helps alert parents and schools when young people are showing signs of cyberbullying, depression, anxiety or suicide ideation.

The film chronicles Benoit's journey of going through recovery and learning to walk again after her suicide attempt. Following the screening, she will lead a Q&A with the audience.

The documentary also shares the stories of two other young people who didn't survive their suicide attempts.

The film combines personal stories and information from family members and friends, school officials and suicide prevention experts.

During the event, mental health professionals will be on-hand to share information on resources and talk one-on-one will parents and teens.

This screening is part of a larger effort by the Rotary Club to bring attention to teen suicide, which is one of the leading causes of death for young adults ages 15 to 24 in this country.

Recently, it has been an issue that has been impacting teens in Queen Creek and the East Valley.

"Since we formed our club a little over a year ago, it's been our mission to bring awareness to the growing teen suicide problem in Queen Creek and the East Valley," said Jason Jantzen, president of the Rotary Club of Queen Creek.

The club has over 30 members. Jantzen said for many of them, teen mental health and suicide prevention are very relevant issues.

"Our club is made up of young professionals, a lot of parents, teachers, police officers, counselors who see this kind of thing every day. A few years back, there was a major issue in Queen Creek where there were several suicide completions that happened, and it really shocked the community... it really hit home once we put this club together. We said we need to get behind a cause. Volunteering for service projects is great, but we feel like this is a bigger issue that needs more awareness," Jantzen said.

Last year, the club did a parent night called "Raising Resilient Teens," in which they brought in speakers to talk on topics related to teen suicide.

In May, they held a 5K run/walk to raise awareness around the issue and bring in funds for their suicide prevention efforts.

The organization offers summer camp grants for teens struggling with mental health issues.

They will also be using funds toward purchasing a service animal for the police department, which will be taken into local schools.

"This dog will go around to several high schools and help mitigate the situation when teens are in crisis at the school," Jantzen said.

With each event, the Rotary Club is trying to build on its work in the community. Partnering with others such as Hedstrom-Pelger helps them to be able to do community events such as the film screening.

Hedstrom-Pelger, who now lives in Chandler, donated additional funds received toward the Tyler Hedstrom Memorial Scholarship, which is given every year to a Combs High School student wanting to pursue a degree in education or music.

Her family donates $1,000, but sometimes others will also make donations.

When this happens, they can give to other causes, such as the high school's band booster club and the film screening.

Her son started playing the drums at age 5. As children, he and his brother, Alex, formed a band called HeadStrum, which was a finalist in the 2013 Alice Cooper's Proof is in the Pudding competition.

Right before his senior year of high school, he started playing with and toured the West Coast with Anarbor.

"Me and my husband went to a few of the dates. We followed along. We are still friends with those guys to this day. They were older than him, and they were such great guys. It was really hard for them because they had just gotten to know him and love him," Hedstrom-Pelger said.

She remembers him as a boy who always wanted to make others smile and laugh.

"He was like a class clown. I don't think he was disruptive. He was just the funniest kid in the class. He was always so sweet to everyone. He didn't exclude people," Hedstrom-Pelger said.

When he started showing anger toward her, Hedstrom-Pelger didn't realize that this was a sign of depression.

Similarly, he was angry when she was experiencing depression.

"That really hit me because I remember thinking Tyler just didn't like me, and he was going through some things. He was nice to everyone else, and I learned after he died that irritability is a sign of depression. I didn't realize he was depressed. I thought he was just being a bratty teenager," Hedstrom-Pelger said.

She hopes that the film will help other parents to know what signs of depression to look out for in their teens.

She emphasizes to parents that it is important to have an open dialogue with teens and offer them a safe space where they can express themselves.

"I know it's hard to say sometimes but don't not say the word 'suicide' if you're worried. What I learned is if you don't say it, that's more dangerous than asking someone," she said.

Hedstrom-Pelger said the film shares helpful information and is inspiring, but can be difficult to watch in places because it gives an honest look into the issue.

"As far as the story, it's very real. Just seeing the whole journey, it's a great film. It's hard for anyone to watch, whether they have been affected by suicide or not, but I learned a few things watching it. Definitely anyone that has kids or works with kids would gain something from watching it," she said.

In 2019, Hedstrom-Pelger shared her story and lent her support behind school suicide prevention training bills brought through the Arizona legislature.

She has also taken part in the Out of the Darkness Walk, which raises money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and volunteered at grief support groups.

She is sometimes asked to talk one-on-one with teens who are struggling.

Initially, Hedstrom-Pelger decided to be open about her story and get involved after hearing about the three other teens who had died by suicide in Queen Creek and Gilbert within three months of her son's death.

"When I realized how often it was happening, that's when I realized I can't just sit in a corner and not say anything. That's what prompted me to do something," she said.

Hedstrom-Pelger continues to be involved in efforts and help where she can.

"It was very tragic what happened in our family. I didn't know anything about it until it happened to us," she said. "Anything I can do to help prevent it, I'm happy to help and just share what I've learned."

Film Screening of "My Ascension"

WHEN: Doors open at 5:30 p.m., film starts 6 p.m., Q&A following film at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 30

WHERE: Queen Creek Community Chambers, 20727 E. Civic Parkway, Queen Creek

PRICE: Free admission



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