Testimony of Sam Collins
President, International Youth Council
Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program
U. S. Senate Subcommittee, Teen Suicide
Senator Christopher Dodd Presiding
I used to think that suicide would never affect my life. I felt this way until my freshman year in high school. I remember a friend of mine, Jesse. My older brother and his older brother were best friends. We also had the same geometry class. Jesse was a year older than me and seeing as how I was a freshman in a sophomore class he looked out for me. I remember one time we all went to the beach and he taught me how to skimboard. Most of all I remember walking in the door from practice one night. As I walked down the hallway my older brother approached me with tears in his eyes. He told me that Jesse had taken his life. I have never been so lost in my life. I’d dealt with death in my life, but never of a friend. Especially under the circumstances of suicide which caused me to feel helpless. Should I have called him that day? Should I have hung out with him more? Should we have talked about more serious problems than geometry and girls? The saddest part is that no one had any answers. Even if somebody did they weren’t about to talk about them. Nobody talked about it, least of all the adults. Everyone who worked for the school acted like he just disappeared one day, or he never existed at all. I was forced to sit in my geometry class and stare at the empty desk next to me where Jesse used to sit for the rest of the semester. Finally a couple of weeks later the principal announced that we had lost one of our fellow students. Lost is the appropriate word because to the school employees, he was simply lost. Jesse was stolen from me.
The reason why the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program works is that we as youth understand the ever present threat of suicide among our peers. We know how tough it is growing up. I know that statistics say that one in five youth consider suicide, one in ten attempts. I’m willing to bet that far greater numbers of youth than we can imagine have considered suicide. I remember one night during my senior year in high school I was driving home dealing with thoughts of my parents divorce. I don’t remember if it was raining or if I just remember it that way because of all the tears in my eyes. I wondered what would happen if I let my truck drift off the road. Other accidents had occurred on this road so I figured that mine would be written down as an accident too. Nobody would have known it was suicide. That night would have ended in suicide if it hadn’t been for the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program. So believe me when I say that I have been to the edge. I have seen every side of suicide. I have lost two friends to suicide, and I almost lost my own life to suicide. The amazing part of my story is that I’ve seen people saved from the shadow of suicide as well. That is what makes my losses seem a little less in vain. I have spoken to thousands of youth about suicide. Due to my involvement with the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program I’ve had many conversations with teens at the breaking point of their life. All it took was one person to show they cared. That is why the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program works. It lets people know that no matter how tough things get, and for teens these days things can be tough, someone will always be there who cares about them.
The problem that the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program runs into is adults. Even though adults are suiciding in large numbers, they still don’t like to say the “s word.” The problem is that many adults still believe all the myths about suicide; number one being talk about suicide, and you’ll cause suicide. As Dr. David Bergman, author of Kids on the Brink and director of a youth treatment center can tell you, “talking about suicide is the first step to preventing it, to breaking down the terrible isolation that a person considering it feels.” The problem with suicide prevention is that most adults don’t want to have anything to do with it until it is too late. It takes a modern day tragedy to get adults to look at the world in which they live. Teenagers understand how difficult it can be to be young. We look out for each other and talk to each other.
The Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program works because of its simplicity. Our message is that “it is okay to ask for help.” Although our overall goal is to prevent suicide this program helps intervene before it is too late. Kids these days need to know that they will be taken seriously when they ask for help. The problem is that a lot of kids don’t know how to ask for help and these yellow ribbon cards empower kids. Remember when you were taking Algebra and after the teacher had explained the problem three times you still didn’t get it? If it was that hard to ask for help on math, think about how hard it is to ask for help with feelings of depression and suicide. The sad fact is that in most cases the parents will be the last to know if a kid is having suicidal thoughts. Their friends will start to see the signs first. The Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program works in large part due to the belief in personal involvement at every level of the community. First, by creating the greatest safety net, peer support. Second, by letting the school and community as a whole let teens know there are people who care. We don’t ask any of the kids involved in this program to be counselors.
All we ask of anyone involved with yellow ribbon is to be a friend. If you can’t give the person the help they need, get them to someone who can. Although our program is usually found in schools, we hope one day that everyone will have a yellow ribbon card. One thing I tell kids when I give presentations is that the card doesn’t have an expiration date. Whether it is two weeks from now or twenty years from now, they will always know that “it is okay to ask for help”.