Before the opening credits to a film about suicide, freshman Noah McGee took the stage at Cedar Springs High School to share his painful, personal experience with such tragedy.
At the podium, football jersey tucked into his jeans, Noah shared memories of a best friend who lost his life to suicide Aug. 24. Noah’s message: “This is for real. This is important.”
His message resonated with an audience of school staff, students, parents and church organizations for whom the issue is all too real, following three suicides of Cedar Springs’ young people in the past three years. In an effort to spark community-wide conversation about mental health and push forward the West Michigan Mental Health Foundation’s “be nice.” initiatives, the high school recently hosted a public viewing of the film “Hope Bridge.” The movie shows a boy’s journey to find hope following his father’s suicide.
Noah’s reflections about a boyhood friend were a powerful piece of the school community’s efforts to raise awareness, support students’ mental health and prevent more tragedies.
Christy Buck, executive director of the West Michigan Mental Health Foundation, said reaching parents and the wider community is an important component of preventing suicide. Speaking before the showing of “Hope Bridge,” she said the film is a gateway to get community members involved.
“We’re going to talk about it,” Buck said. “Who could have noticed what was going on with this boy? Who could have reached out?”
While depression is a silent illness, Buck said, the solution is having conversation and ensuring that students report when they notice others’ behaviors. “These secrets need to be shared,” she said. “For a best friend to get up and talk about it, that’s what we have to keep doing.”
A Determined Athlete Who Helped Others
Noah said his friend lived near the elementary school, and as children they would pretend to hunt orcs, mythical creatures from “The Lord of the Rings,” on the nearby fields. He recalled his determination on the eighth-grade football team and the love he showed his friends.
“If we ran laps in football and he started hurting from his asthma, he would keep going,” Noah said. “If he saw someone walking on the field and they were out of breath, he would stop and go with them all the way to the finish. Nothing would get in his way, and if it did, he would go right through it like it was nothing.”
Noah said he felt compelled to share his personal experience because education alone can’t send the message of awareness.
“As somebody that actually knew that person and knows what happens when this kind of thing goes on, they might be more interested,” he said.
Noah and other students formed a Peer Listeners group, led by him and high school teacher Linda Rupke, to support those dealing with depression, anxiety and other issues.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention held its national Out of the Darkness Walk in Grand Rapids Sept. 18, in alignment with Suicide Prevention Month. In addition to Peer Listeners, the district has hired new mental health counselors and implemented other programming to ramp up its efforts to tackle depression, the leading cause of suicide.
Cedar Springs Superintendent Laura VanDuyn encouraged community members to participate in the continued work to respond “loudly” to the student deaths from suicide of recent years.
“We can’t necessarily reach out and fix this in the country, but I know that we can fix this here in Cedar Springs,” she said.