It’s been four years since Austin Weirich took his own life.
Today, Leslie Weirich is honoring her 20-year-old son and doing battle for other youth who lose hope through a new organization she created, ClearlyHope.org.
Weirich has been talking about suicide prevention in youth since 2018, two years after Austin’s death. But she did not have a formal organization until this May. And her website ClearlyHope.org went live in late summer.
“This topic is more important now than even what it was a year ago,” she said. Why? Because of the disconnect people are feeling with COVID-19.
Weirich, who used to work at Interra, was working full-time to speak part-time.
But because of COVID, “I made a decision with the numbers that were coming in in the rise in suicide that I really needed to resign from my full-time position and start this organization, ClearlyHope.org.”
A GREATER NEED
Before COVID, Weirich had been speaking in schools, churches, nonprofits and occasionally as a keynote speaker at fundraisers.
“The calls were coming in more frequently,” she said. “So, when COVID shut the schools down in March, I still had six schools locally left to go speak at. I knew once we got through to the other side of this with COVID, the need was going to be even greater.
“I had no idea what the isolation of this time was going to do to all of us. My heart, my passion is to prevent youth suicides, because our son Austin was 20 years old when he took his life. But I realize now what’s happened with COVID is — I call it a blessing, because it’s normalized mental health.”
The world is talking about how people are feeling mentally because of COVID.
“Every one of us is struggling right now and, to be perfectly honest, you know, we’re being asked to do things we never thought we’d have to do,” Weirich said. “So it’s very, very important to me to step out and get back into the schools as quickly as possible. … I also do teacher trainings on how to respond to questions about suicide and how to work with the students.”
Suicide Prevention Month is September, so Weirich is normally quite busy speaking and is excited to begin doing so again in the schools.
When she speaks to students, she recommends an app and a program: Not OK and Sources of Strength.
Not OK is a simple, free and easy GPS-based app.
“I go into every school with my phone. I speak to the teachers before I meet with the students. Usually, most students will have their phone in their back pocket. They might have it turned off for the class but most of them will have it with them,” Weirich said. She has them take out their phones and download the app. It’s a practical tool that they have in their back pocket and can reach out to someone they’ve chosen whenever they feel like they need help.
Weirich explains to the students that they can upload one to five contacts — people who are in their trusted circle. However, the really important thing is they cannot put someone their own age in the Not OK app.
Why? Because their prefrontal cortex still has years to grow just like the young person pushing the button for help. The prefrontal cortex is where upper level decision-making takes place. Scientists, Weirich said, used to believe it was developed by age 25, but they’ve since moved that number up to 27. Other young people, she said, are struggling with their own decision making and they are having the same stresses in their lives. The statistics bear that out. In Indiana, suicide is the No. 2 cause of death among young people ages 15 to 34.
“So we need it to be a trusted adult,” Weirich said, “Somebody a little bit older than you, preferably over the age of 27. And we put those names in there, so any time you’re struggling and you feel like you’re not going to make it to the end of the day, you need someone to just come and be with you, sit with you on the side of the road, you simply click ‘Not OK.’ And it sends out an SOS message to your trusted circle.” The person who arrives first will send a message back that reads “’Insert name’ is OK.”
She believes the app has saved many lives. “Sometimes all we need is just somebody to come and sit beside us. They don’t have to fix it,” Weirich said. “They just have to sit there and be with us. I make sure there is an agreement between the two parties because this sometimes comes at midnight or 2 a.m. But I love the Not OK app. It’s been effective and I’ve had the students download it when I go speak at the schools. I think it’s just a wonderful use of technology.”
Even Weirich has the Not OK app on her phone. She has her husband and some friends in her trusted circle.
“Sometimes I just have a rough day. And I think sometimes as adults we try to keep it all together and so many times it’s a façade. It’s a mask we’re wearing,” she said. “… We’ve been wearing masks a lot longer than before COVID, just the invisible ones.
“How many times have you had a day where you just want to text somebody and say, ‘I’m really struggling today. I’m really, really struggling. And you know, can you meet me for coffee?’ And then you go ‘Oh, I don’t want to bother them. Yeah, I don’t want them to worry about me.’ So you delete the text.
But now with COVID, the whole world is feeling hurt all at the same time.
“We’re in this together,” Weirich said. “I know that sounds like the slogan, but we really, really need each other more than we ever have. And if we can make mental health just part of our regular health and not different and not weird and not separate. I tell the kids when I go speak in the schools, I say, ‘Listen, if you break your leg, you’re going to get a cast, right? You’re going to go to the doctor. They’re going to put you on crutches. If you dislocate your shoulder, they’re going to put a sling on you, right? You could be walking around with your head hurting and nobody knows. And your head is attached to the rest of your body. So let’s talk about when your head gets sick. And we all have it. And so, let’s talk about how to help you when your head doesn’t feel well. And you just sometimes might not even know why — nothing’s really happened, you just have a feeling that you’re not OK; you need to talk to somebody. So let’s talk about what you do when you feel that way.’”
Social media doesn’t help either. It plays the highlight reels of people lives and comparisons begin.
What they’re not seeing are the lows and struggles those people are facing, Weirich said.
“This age of comparison that we’re living in, it’s so hard on everyone,” she said. “Not just young people, but adults, all of us. We’re all guilty of that.
“For these young people to realize everybody struggles. Just because I’m feeling hopeless today, doesn’t mean I have to end my life today. Just because I’m feeling like there’s no hope, somebody can get here. I don’t have to be alone and be by myself when I’m feeling this way. I can get somebody to come and be with me and sit with me and help me until I feel like there is more hope. I want kids to feel like it’s really, really part of their life now, to watch out for each other.”
SOURCES OF STRENGTH
Another program that she absolutely loves is the Sources of Strength program. It’s a national program that was started in Colorado. “I cannot say enough about this program. If I could wave a magic wand and put it in every high school and every middle school in our state, in our community, I feel certain — and this might even be an underestimate — I feel certain we could reduce the amount of suicides — cut them in half.
This program utilizes eight protective factors: physical health, family support, positive friends, your spirituality or your faith, generosity, mentors in your life, your mental health and healthy activities.
Basically, what they do is, she explained, they go into schools and train students to be peer leaders. “Because who’s better at identifying another kid that’s hurting in the hallway then a student, right?” she said.
These kids are trained to be the eyes and ears of their peers. “Then they can identify the kids that are really, really needing the help, that are in crisis at that moment,” Weirich said. They then take that to the ambassadors, who are the trusted adults, “and that’s where the talking begins, and the healing, and the work, helping that kid with whatever they might need.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic, online therapies have skyrocketed. Talkspace Online Therapy, a subscription-based service, has seen a large increase in patients.
She knows there are many more programs out there, but these are just a few. And she believes those two could have a huge impact on reducing youth suicide.
“Don’t let cost prohibit you from getting the help you need,” she said. “There’s a lot of resources out there and those are ones I’m going to be featuring more and more on my website, clearlyhope.org.” She will be featuring a different organization each month.
“It’s OK not to be OK. If you are having a bad day, let somebody know,” she said.