STAY: GCI’s Suicide Prevention Grant gives hope
At 16-years-old Palmer-native Justin Pendergrass found himself one of Alaska’s reported 3,784 homeless youth. It wasn’t long before he spiraled into a cycle of substance abuse and suicidal ideations.
“I had family members attempt suicide and others who followed through with it. I guess it contributed to making me think that I would be better off dead too,” recalls Pendergrass. “It wasn’t until I got sober that I was able to overcome those feelings.”
In 2014, things had begun looking up for Pendergrass—he was sober and attending school. He even achieved a lifelong dream of having his music played on the radio when he wrote the theme song for the You Are Not Alone (YANA) program. To the outside observer, Pendergrass had successfully outrun his past. But despite his success, Pendergrass felt the darkness creeping back in.
“After I was done with that program, I got super depressed and it got a lot harder for me. My only goal that I set for myself and my music at 10-years-old was to have a song played on the radio and when I achieved that, I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. I kind of lost hope in what I was doing, and it was scary because I had worked so hard to get past that. Then one thing happens and you're like what now,” says Pendergrass.
Looking back, the now 26-year-old believes that he needed to experience the darkness of suicidal ideations again because it reminded him that he was human. It also gave him a second opportunity to tell his story—this time, on his terms.
With the help of funding from GCI’s Suicide Prevention Grant, Pendergrass and the staff at Wasilla’s My House successfully launched a new program called “STAY”.
“The idea was a spin-off of the Netflix show ’13 Reasons Why’,” Pendergrass says. “But instead of it being reasons why suicide is an option, we wanted to turn it into positive—like 13 reasons why you should stay. Then the word ‘stay’ just kept resonating. It’s a really powerful message—a one-word statement.”
On Sept. 19, Pendergrass and the My House staff distributed over 360 “STAY” branded t-shirts throughout the Mat-Su community in conjunction with the release of Pendergrass’ music video of the same name.
“The next day I had so many messages in my inbox and I think I knew this effort was something that needed to continue,” explains Pendergrass.
In the coming year Pendergrass has plans to continue to spread his message of positivity and hope through a new program at My House.
“I stayed because of my family and I need to take care of them still—and that’s a powerful motivator. So that's kind of what I want this program to be. I don't want this class to be another ‘let me teach you how to notice if somebody else is going to harm themselves’ kind of thing. The kids have already figured that out and they know to reach out and say, ‘I’m here’. We need to help them figure out the coping skills that are going to keep them from doing it,” Pendergrass says.
As one of 10 grant recipients statewide, My House isn’t the only organization taking a new approach to suicide prevention. After discovering through the Youth Risk Behavior Survey that suicidal ideations were astonishingly common among their students, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District knew that they had to act.
“About two years ago we had two of our counselors do a Project AWARE grant through the Department of Education to provide social-emotional and wellness counseling to our two alternative schools. We wanted to focus more on suicide prevention so after doing research we decided on a program based out of North Dakota called ‘Sources of Strength’,” explains Marathon School Principal Melissa Linton.
Sources of Strength is one of the first suicide prevention programs that uses Peer Leaders to enhance protective factors such as access to medical care, family support and healthy activities which the programs asserts are associated with reducing suicide at the school population level. Sources of Strength was listed on Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices online registry of interventions that have demonstrated effectiveness in the prevention or treatment of mental health and substance use disorders, including some interventions that address suicide.
For the past two years the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has been working to train both peer leaders and adult mentors in the program. As the success of the program relies on the participation of the students, how it’s carried out varies at each school. With the help of the adult mentors the students do public service announcements and activities in their school but it's completely student driven Linton says. However, one of the keys of the program is that the Peer Leaders represent a diverse group of students from different cliques, so Linton relies on teachers, counselors and principals to recommend students for the program.
“When I was a kid, prevention was look at your ‘brain on drugs’ posters and pictures of people who look disgusting after they've smoked for 20 years. Sources of Strength is not that shock and awe tactic, it's the flipside. They want schools to be promoting the positive things that kids do and not the shock and trauma that can happen if you make bad choices because that doesn't work. Those media blitzes just don't work! We're really trying to promote wellness in all of its permutations,” Linton explains.
This spring, Linton and Sources of Strength Peer Leaders plan to host their biggest conference to date with an estimated 300 Kenai Peninsula high school students in attendance.
“I think the more that we have suicide and healthy behaviors become part of our conversation the less of a taboo topic it will become. We can’t be afraid to say ‘hey, I'm really struggling’. I think having the vocabulary and the practice to be able to share will be helpful. The adults in our community that are struggling also need to be able to have the same conversations. This is just the beginning,” explains Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Communications Liaison Pegge Erkeneff.