Angie Wallace wasn't quite sure Monday how many times — maybe three or four — she's spoken at a school in the Jefferson City area about mental health and suicide prevention. However, every time, she hopes her words in memory of her late son, Taylor Gilpin Wallace, save lives.
Taylor, 18, who had been studying to become a cardiothoracic surgeon, died by suicide two years ago on Oct. 27, 2016. Angie created the Taylor Gilpin Wallace Foundation for Suicide Prevention in his name, and speaking at schools helps carry out the foundation's stated mission to help save lives, educate and empower adults and students "to promote the emotional health of those at risk," and "give hope to those affected by suicide and/or mental illness."
It may be coincidence that green is the color of the ribbon that symbolizes mental health awareness and that Blair Oaks High School students heard Angie speak Monday in the high school gym — lots of Blair Oaks Falcons green in there — but it's no coincidence Angie and Blair Oaks High School Principal Melinda Aholt know each other. They were in the same classes and same sorority in college.
Aholt admitted to students ahead of Angie's talk that hearing about suicide and mental health "may not be easy to listen to, but definitely something that must be listened to."
She added that she wanted to learn from Angie about "what do I do as a principal to make sure we are getting the message out to our students to make sure that you're listening to your friends."
Before she prepped for her presentation in the gym, Angie said of an alarming report over the summer from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that, "It doesn't change how I do my work. It should change how schools (and parents) do their work."
That CDC report found suicide rates in the United States rose nearly 30 percent from 1999-2016 — 25 states had even higher increases; Missouri was among them.
"Everybody needs to know the signs," Angie said of the ways people who are suicidal often express or experience them:
- Previous suicide attempts;
- Making plans for death or post-death arrangements, like giving away important possessions;
- Themes of death or depression in a person's words, writing, reading and art;
- The recent loss of a loved one, especially through divorce, death or suicide;
- Sudden and drastic changes in academic performance;
- Use or increased use of drugs or alcohol;
- Physical symptoms such as chronic headaches, stomach aches or fatigue, or changed eating and sleeping habits;
- Withdrawal or isolation from friends, family or school activities;
- Neglect of personal appearance;
- Taking unnecessary risks;
- Lack of interest in favorite activities or hobbies;
- Access to a firearm or other potentially deadly means of suicide
- Talking about, making plans or threatening suicide — which requires immediate action on the part of a person who hears this.
Angie said talking about suicide is not "planting the idea" for it, but just the opposite; it's an open invitation to get help, to let people know they are not alone in how they are feeling.
She told Blair Oaks High School students that she truly believes Taylor would still be alive if not for the stigma around mental health issues.
"You know when that's happening," she said of students' awareness of when stress, sadness and anxiety don't go away like they normally do, but stay.
"You need to find a trusted adult," Angie said, urging students to find someone to confide in who can provide or get help. Aholt likewise encouraged students to ask teachers to connect with them, if they haven't already.
Angie also left copies of author Kristy Hugstad's book "R U OK? Teen Depression & Suicide" with the Blair Oaks High School library. Angie also spoke to Blair Oaks Middle School students Monday morning, and spoke with Calvary Lutheran High School students last year.
Blair Oaks High School guidance counselor Jill Shanley and Helias Catholic High School counselor Josh Varner said Angie's message was powerful.
Beyond the mental health and suicide prevention resources that schools and organizations such as the Wallace foundation provide, Shanley said the school counselors have a free referral guide available for anyone interested to guide people to further outside resources.
Shanley added that parents can also check with their insurance providers, and the school has information for resources that can help if a family does not have insurance at all or a policy that covers mental health.
Jefferson City Public Schools' policy on suicide awareness and prevention also includes, "The district will, in collaboration with local organizations and the Missouri Department of Mental Health, identify local, state and national resources and organizations that can provide information or support to students and families. Copies of or links to resources will be available to all students and families on the district's website and in all district schools."
Varner said he's the point-person for providing resources at Helias, and beyond him in the Diocese of Jefferson City, Nancy Hoey can also help.
Angie Wallace said one the best steps parents can take as a family is "coming together and communicating with your kids" about what could be done if their children start to experience or feel like their mental health is at risk — check in with children; have a crisis plan; encourage children by good example to not be so absorbed in technology, which can lead to isolation and other social and emotional problems.
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She said schools — such as through a "hope week" that a student council can organize — can educate or show students different varieties of healthy coping skills and strategies, such as art and exercise.
She said the mayor of Brookfield — her family's hometown — last May also issued a proclamation to observe the month of May as Mental Health Month.
Locally, a non-profit support group, In A FLASH, will present the "Ripple Effect" suicide awareness film with guest speaker Kevin Hines at 7 p.m. Nov. 29 at the Miller Performing Arts Center, 501 Madison St., with a book signing preceding the film at 6:30 p.m.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). The Lifeline is free and confidential. People can call for themselves or loved ones, to be listened to and hear about prevention and crisis resources, and best practices for professionals.
Other information and resources are available at suicidepreventionlifeline.org. A crisis text line can be accessed at 741-741.
More information about the Taylor Gilpin Wallace Foundation is available at tgwfoundation.org.
Correction: The group that is sponsoring a screening of the "Ripple Effect" suicide awareness film was incorrectly identified in the original version of this story. The text above has since been corrected to reflect the correct group.