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Mattituck students receive suicide prevention peer education training

Suffolk County Department of Health educator John Martin speaks to Mattituck students on suicide prevention. Photo: Katharine Schroeder

In 2014 suicide was the second leading cause of death among young people ages 15 to 24. Since 1999 the rate of suicide for the age group has risen 24 percent.

With those frightening statistics in mind, Mattituck High School has begun a peer education training program on suicide prevention.

Guidance counselor Michelle Fussa and social worker Andrea Nydegger teamed up with public health educators from the Suffolk County Department of Health Services to offer a day-long training seminar for 20 juniors and seniors, which took place today at the high school.

“The program teaches the student volunteers what the warning signs of suicide are, how to talk to at-risk kids and how to help their peers do the same,” said Nydegger.

Presenter John Martin, a senior public health educator from Suffolk County’s Office of Health Education, began training students about five years ago with a suicide prevention program at Sayville High School. After running a successful bullying prevention program, Martin enlisted the help of an intern to develop and implement this peer education training for suicide prevention.

“We go into schools all over Long Island, training the kids to talk to their peers about suicide,” said Martin. “Originally we did a three hour training but have found the full day training is far better.”

Using questionnaires, videos, games and role playing, Martin and his associate Deb Sermet, also a senior public health educator, instructed the students on spotting the warning signs of suicide, how to deal with someone who is in imminent danger of committing suicide and how to handle someone who is at risk. The goal of the training is to prepare the students to go into classrooms and teach their peers how to do the same.

Once they finished the training, the student volunteers grouped together to develop and design a presentation that they will deliver to freshmen and junior classes in the spring.

Several of the student trainees spoke about the importance of having a suicide prevention program in place at Mattituck High School.

“We hear so much about suicide in the news,” said Teagan Nine, a junior. “But not everyone takes it to heart that there are so many kids out there in so much pain. Not everyone understands someone contemplating suicide and they don’t know how to cope with it. We live in what many people call the ‘bubble of Mattituck,’ everyone thinks it’s all perfect, everyone knows everyone else. But the truth is that not everyone knows what’s going on in people’s lives.”

Kayla Larsen, a senior, agrees. “They think that suicide will never happen here, that everything’s just fine. But in a small town people feel the need to keep their business to themselves because they’re afraid to be judged.”

Senior Joy Davis emphasized the importance of having a program such as this at the high school.

“Everything begins with a conversation,” said Joy. “You have to start with an understanding of people and what makes people feel this way. I think that it’s really important that we have something like this at Mattituck so we can develop that understanding and move on to the prevention.”

Heather Carita, a junior, hopes that the program will encourage kids to take other people’s feelings more seriously.

“A lot of people think maybe the stress is getting to someone but it’s something they’ll get over in time and I think this training is going to help everyone be a little more aware and say maybe I do need to take this person more seriously and see if they’re okay.”

The peer education training will take place each year at the high school, said Nydegger.

Katharine is a writer and photographer who has lived on the North Fork for nearly 40 years, except for three-plus years in Hong Kong a decade ago, working for the actor Jackie Chan. She lives in Cutchogue. Email Katharine