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3 takeaways from Hall County Schools forum on grief, suicide
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Hall County Schools held a virtual forum on grief and suicide Feb. 16, 2021, in the wake of two student deaths at Flowery Branch High School.

Judy Brownell from Center Point ended Hall County Schools’ virtual forum on coping with grief by explaining the suicide warning signs she saw with her own son. 

When Brownell was 34 and her son was 5, her father committed suicide. Years later her teenage son quit soccer, changed his clothes, friends and behavior. 

“He was a happy-go-lucky child, and then all of the sudden all I saw was anger and frustration,” Brownell said. 

One night Brownell overcame her fear and directly asked her son if he was thinking about killing himself. He said yes. 

Together they worked on finding a solution for mental health, which led him to check into Laurelwood for in-patient care and later find a local therapist. 

The virtual session, live-streamed on Hall County Schools’ Youtube channel, focused on community healing and grief after two Flowery Branch High School students’ recent deaths. About 100 people tuned in to the hour-long session, which started at 6:30 p.m.

The session included a presentation by Dr. Marshall Bruner, of Center Point, a community and student education organization that provides counseling services. Additional speakers included Adam Raulerson from Laurelwood, Northeast Georgia Health System’s mental health clinic in Gainesville. The event discussed suicide warning signs, debunking myths and how parents can help their children cope with grief.

Tamara Etterling, director of student services for Hall County Schools, noted that it's important to ask students “who is your trusted adult at school?” She said this ensures students are speaking out and confiding in someone in the school building. 

Additional resources and websites provided during the session include the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors. Here are a few of takeaways from the information presented.

Don’t avoid grieving 

Bruner defined the grieving process as a painful, universal and normal process. He said grief can be expressed physically, emotionally and spiritually. It is not to be associated as a mental illness, a weakness or enemy. Although a common misconception, Bruner said there is no time limit or short cut through the grieving process. 

“We feel it strongly and fully. Don’t shy away from it,” Bruner said. 

As the local community grieves the loss of the two Flowery Branch students, Bruner said it’s important parents work with their children to address how they’re affected and reach out to a friend, pastor or therapist for additional support. Common phrases to avoid while helping others grieve are “You have to be strong” or “You know they wouldn’t want you to feel sad.”

Debunk suicide myths

Raulerson focused on debunking common myths surrounding suicide, such as the belief that people who are suicidal keep thier plans to themselves. Raulerson said research shows most suicidal people communicate their intent sometime before their attempt. 

“It just takes any positive action, one call or smile to prevent a suicide,” Raulerson said. “Some people believe there’s no turning back once the decision is made, but that’s been seen as false.”

Raulerson said once a person receives the help they need, their chances of becoming suicidal again are significantly lower. 

Many parents may worry that if they confront their children about suicide, they will become angry or frustrated. Raulerson said asking people about suicide directly is found to lower their anxiety and reduce the risk of an impulsive act.

How to ask about and understand suicide warnings 

Raulerson said he prefers a direct approach to the question, such as “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” The alternative is an indirect approach phrasing a question like, “Have you been unhappy or want to go to sleep and never wake up?”

Raulerson said when in doubt or anxious, it’s better to directly ask your child than to wait. If a parent notices their child is reluctant to speak about their behavior or mental health, Raulerson said to remain persistent. The best way to approach the conversation is in a private setting and allowing the child to speak freely. 

Before asking the question, Raulerson advises parents to heed the following warning signs: high risk behavior, anger or statements of despair. 

Before he admitted to having suicidal thoughts, Brownell's son had started smoking cigarettes and became secluded from friends and family, she said. Raulerson said in males, he’s noticed suicidal behavior came after a change or loss in a relationship such as a romantic relationship, death or divorce in the family. 

Physical warning signs of suicidal thoughts can range from change in sleep patterns or menstrual irregularities to severe headaches, Raulerson said. 

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