DELAWARE, Ohio (KXAN) — Sitting on the edge of Sarah Lee Jefferson’s desk is a cream-colored picture frame covered with textured, light blue flowers. Behind the small, square-shaped piece of glass is a yellow post-it note with four words scribbled across in black ink.

It’s the last note Jefferson ever received from her father. He was 49 years old. She was 19. Days later, he took his own life. Jefferson says she never saw it coming.

Sarah Lee Jefferson note
Last note Sarah Lee Jefferson received from her father (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

“Ever since that day I struggled with the why,” Jefferson said. “Why does this happen? How could I have helped?”

She shared the tragic story and her own grief journey with more than 5,000 middle and high school students in north central Ohio last year. Her father’s death is what led her to work as a suicide prevention manager for HelpLine. She visits 21 campuses a year in Delaware and Morrow Counties where she spends three days with ninth graders and two days with seventh graders sharing an evidence-based program called “SOS: Signs of Suicide.”

Suicide blanket
Blanket and pictures behind Sarah Lee Jefferson’s desk to help her remember her father (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

“We’re teaching them not only what to look for in themselves but what to look for in someone else, because a lot of times when someone is struggling with this stuff they have a hard time being able to get the help that they need or even recognizing that they need to seek help,” Jefferson said.

The program is part video and part guided discussion, and on the final day, students are screened for signs of suicide and depression. The screening form is a single sheet of paper with seven questions, which include: Have you thought seriously about killing yourself?

HelpLine turns the answers over to the school immediately so counselors can step in if needed. Of the 5,275 students screened last school year, one in 10 acknowledged they were struggling. Jefferson believes there were more, but says it’s not always easy for teens to be completely honest. In her experience, some would rather open up to a stranger like herself than their own parents for fear of upsetting them.

How it all started

HelpLine Executive Director Susan Hanson says the suicide prevention program, which began in the early 2000s, was the result of community leaders wanting to do more when suicides were on the rise.

“I think one of the biggest challenges and where we’ve been successful and fortunate is that we have a great set of community partners, agencies and organizations that are willing to work together,” Hanson said. “The schools are wonderful in that they are willing to open their doors to us.”

HelpLine headquarters in Delaware, Ohio (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

HelpLine is a contract provider of the Delaware-Morrow Mental Health and Recovery Services Board. In addition to providing the suicide prevention program for schools, it also runs and staffs a 24/7 call center at its headquarters in the city of Delaware.

When people in seven central Ohio counties dial 211 they can anonymously tell call takers about abuse, family violence or any mental health issue. HelpLine’s goal is to walk them through next steps and connect callers with mental health resources in the community.

Last year alone, HelpLine says more than 15,000 people called and more than 11,000 texted – both adults and children.

HelpLine Hotline
HelpLine staff member taking a call in the 24-hour crisis call center (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

HelpLine Hotline Manager Amanda Blake talks to callers on their worst days.

“We had a child calling from school who was suicidal and they were experiencing bullying and so things just kind of kept escalating,” Blake said. “The guidance counselor contacted the parent and got the parent to the school while we worked with local mental health agencies to get them an appointment for the next day.”

HelpLine has a large operating budget of more than $2 million a year. The majority of funding comes from grants and county property taxes. Voters approved a levy to put specific tax dollars toward mental health.

HelpLine measures the success of the suicide prevention program

One way HelpLine measures the program’s success is by tracking suicides of adults and children.

Downtown Delaware, Ohio
Downtown in Delaware, Ohio (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

In Delaware County, Jefferson said as of May 2019, nine adults had killed themselves. The two previous years, the number was consistently 19, and in 2016 the county had 28 suicides by that time.

Morrow County has not turned its annual statistics over to HelpLine, and KXAN is still trying to get data from the county coroner’s office and the local health department.

A recent study by the Ohio Alliance for Innovation in Population Health and the Ohio University College of Health Sciences and Professions shows Delaware County has one of the lowest suicide rates in the state, but the rate in Morrow County has historically been higher.

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When it comes to teens taking their own lives, Jefferson said so far this year there have been none in Delaware County.

In preparation for the upcoming school year, the suicide prevention team has grown from a two-person team to a four-person team. The county mental health board also helps fund additional mental health counselors in schools.

HelpLine hopes the work it’s doing in schools with teenagers will lay the groundwork for when they get older and become adults in the community.

“Part of the hope is that as we are promoting and encouraging and teaching resiliency, but also encouraging this help-seeking behavior that it’s OK to not be OK, and that there is help out there and that treatment works,” Hanson said.

24/7 crisis helpline in Travis County

Integral Care is the Local Mental Health and Intellectual and Developmental Disability Authority in Travis County. It also offers a 24/7 Helpline, which provides around-the-clock crisis support as well as access to programs and services for adults and children. The number is 512-472-HELP (4357).

If you or someone you know is experiencing emotional distress or suicidal crisis, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free, 24/7 confidential service you can call at 800-273-8255. There is also a free text-message service that offers 24/7 support for those in crisis and can be reached by texting 741-741. If it’s an emergency, please dial 911. Find resources on the Save Our Students Support and Outreach page.

KXAN Live conversation: student suicide prevention

KXAN reporter Erin Cargile and two experts in teen suicide prevention — Sarah Lee Jefferson, the HelpLine Suicide Prevention Program Manager in Ohio, and Amy Grosso, Round Rock ISD’s Future Readiness Coordinator — answered questions live on Facebook and about teen suicide prevention as part of the Save Our Students project.