Fourteen-year-old Alex Cypher was a lifelong resident of Highland. He was a quiet child, and suffered from bullying at school. On Aug. 14, tragedy rippled throughout the community when he committed suicide.
He would have started his freshman year at Arlington High School in September.
On Friday, Sept. 27, Highland community members dressed in “Alexander the Great, Gone But Not Forgotten” t-shirts gathered in the chapel at The First United Methodist Church of Highland to raise awareness for suicide prevention in his honor.
Shaunte Hess, a cousin of Cypher, organized the event and arranged for her friend Colleen Creighton, the Executive Director of the American Association of Suicidology in Washington D.C. to come speak. Creighton was joined by four other keynote speakers: Ellen Pendegar, CEO of Mental Health Association in Ulster County, Michael Paff, the school psychologist at Highland High School, Jerry Wimberly, Chapter Leader of New York “22 Until None,” and Angela Amoia-Lutz, Chapter Board President of American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“I started calling agencies to get them to come speak and to help our small time in crisis,” Hess said. “I think the fact that it was a young kid really got the attention of everyone I talked to and they wanted to get involved.”
Creighton highlighted the prevalence of suicide in the U.S., proving that it has developed into an epidemic. She asked the audience if anyone knows how many lives are lost each year due to suicide in the U.S.
“Over 47,000,” Creighton answered. “Breaking that down, that is 129 people a day, or one person every 11.1 minutes.”
Currently, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death across the country. For young adults, it is the second leading cause of death.
Pendegar pointed out that anyone can be in a positon where they think about suicide depending on what is going on in their lives, that it is an inherent part of the human condition.
“I’m not here to tell you that we are going to get rid of people having thoughts of suicide because that is going to be part of us as human beings, but what we are trying to do is let a person know that if they have thoughts of suicide, that there is a community out there that would want to help you,” Pendegar said.
The common theme among all five speakers was that openly and directly talking about suicide, that no longer making suicide a cultural taboo is the key to prevention.
“There is a myth that if you ask a person who is experiencing depression, sadness or anxiety about suicide, that it wouldn’t be okay. We should not be afraid to talk about it,” Paff declared.
Hess suggested that the schools adopt more anti-bullying initiatives, student-led activities, and perhaps start a committee of parents and students to spread awareness and get involved in prevention events.
“The more people get involved, the more they see just how big the need is,” Hess said.
Creighton preached that more needs to be done to treat this epidemic, particularly with educating the masses about suicide. Last year CDC came out with new data, showing that over the past 15-20 years, suicide in the U.S. has increased just over 30%. It’s the highest levels recorded since World War II.
Despite these statistics, what gives Creighton hope about diminishing suicide rates are the kids.
“I have all the bureaucrats telling me what to do and I say that’s not where things are going to change, it’s actually on the ground level with the kids,” Creighton claimed. “They are talking, creating and coming up with a lot of the cool stuff. It starts at a community level and that’s the only way we are really going to attack this nationwide.”
On Monday, Sept. 30, Hess went on Facebook to thank the community for participating and promoting the suicide prevention community night.
“We are just getting started and we have a lot of work ahead of us,” Hess wrote. “But thanks to all of you, I’m not afraid, I’m not stopping, I’m not giving up! Stay with me. We are making a difference!”