EXETER†ó While the community continues to mourn the death of Cooperative Middle School student Natalie Fox by suicide, a local nonprofit is stepping in to help make students more comfortable talking openly about their mental well-being.
Connorís Climb Foundation, dedicated to providing suicide prevention education in New Hampshire, has already worked in more than 60 New Hampshire middle schools and high schools implementing the SOS (Signs of Suicide) program to train educators to pass along their knowledge to their students. The organization will host a community forum featuring former New Hampshire Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick talking about his family's struggle with mental illness at Exeter Town Hall at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 15.
Connorís Climb Executive Director Candice Porter said the organization is focused on passing legislation to require students to receive suicide prevention education in their middle and high school curriculums. The SAU 16 community has suffered the suicide deaths of several students in recent years, including Chris Daoust in 2010, Cody Brackett in 2012 and Jack Beaton in 2016.
"Without a state mandate, suicide prevention is left up to the individual districts to implement," Porter said. "Collaborative efforts with our partner organizations such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and National Alliance for Mental Illness will be the only way we get this important work done."
Connorís Climb president and founder Tara Ball tragically knows what Foxís family and friends are going through. Ball lost her son Connor to suicide in 2011. He was a freshman at Exeter High School.†Connorís Climb started as a 5K race to raise money for suicide prevention in 2013.
Following the first successful race, the organization began working in schools implementing the SOS program, free to districts, where students learn the acronym ACT, which stands for acknowledge, care and tell. Students learn to acknowledge a peerís or their own symptoms of depression, demonstrate their level of care to a peer if one confides his or her feelings to them and then tell a trusted adult.
Connorís Climb†has sponsored "Stick it to Stigma" hockey games with the University of New Hampshire womenís hockey team, the Exeter High girls varsity hockey team, and the boys and girls hockey teams at Berwick Academy. The idea was started in memory of Connor, who loved to play hockey, baseball and dreamed of climbing Mount Everest.
"You never move on, you never move forward. You donít stop crying. You learn to be with it because itís something thatís always there," Tara Ball said. "We try to engage kids and get them to talk about mental health because if you can get them to talk about it like itís any other part of their health, then we can make this whole generation of kids be more open than previous generations who may be less inclined to talk about their mental health."
Ball said Broderick delivers his story in a way that resonates with audiences of all ages.
"Itís something about the way he tells his story. He speaks to kids, adults, educators," she said. "Given the recent loss in the Exeter community, it seemed like it would be a good time to have someone bring a positive perspective on mental health to continue reducing the stigma surrounding it."
Broderick has spoken thousands of students in New Hampshire, Vermont and parts of northern Massachusetts in hopes of fostering a constructive dialogue to destigmatize mental illness.
"This is the most important thing Iíve done in my life," he said. "Mental illness is fundamental to a number of things that plague our society; domestic violence, child abuse, drug addiction."
Broderick was assaulted in 2002 by his then-30-year-old son John Christian Broderick. Broderick, 54 at the time, was hospitalized with facial fractures and Christian was sentenced to 7Ĺ to 15 years in prison. Broderick shares the story of his eldest son and their struggles as a family to understand mental illness and to get his son the help he had needed for years. He discusses the many warning signs his son showed before the assault and his struggle with alcohol addiction due to his undiagnosed depression.
In the wake of Fox's suicide, Broderick said the need to foster a supportive environment for young people to share their emotions when they feel depressed was more urgent than ever.
"What happened to that family could happen to another family tomorrow in the next school district over," he said. "That young lady thought the only way to feel better was to end her own life, and her family has a lot of courage to come forward and have this conversation. Mental illness isnít a character flaw, itís a health issue. If we donít change the conversation, Iím afraid weíll be attending more funerals of young people in the future."
Ball said she takes comfort in her work and mentioned several kids who have approached her and said the programming they received in school and her story saved their friendís life or their own.
"I see kids who talk about how they feel now and they know what to do if their friend is struggling," Ball said. "If we can save one life, itís all worth it to us. We canít rely on just the schools or a parent, it takes our whole community. Thereís a misconception that if you talk about suicide, someone is going to die by suicide. When you talk about it, you give someone an opportunity to talk about how theyíre feeling and that may be the question they need to open up."
If you need help call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or text 741741. For information, visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.