Teen suicide present in many communities

By Faith Pitsikoulis
March 7, 2020

Founder Holly O’Connell. Photo by https://apathtohope.org.

“We received a text that was a cry for help and thankfully did not ignore it.”  

Holly O’Connell and her husband read a text message that no parent wants to receive from their child.  They had dropped their son off for his freshman year of college just three weeks prior, but a single message was all it took for both parents to drive back to Washington D.C. immediately.

“I had never felt fear like that before, and I hope I never do again,” O’Connell said.  “We got there, and I will never forget the feeling of hugging my 6 ‘6” baby boy and sobbing into his shoulder.”

The O’Connell family had just begun their battle with a heartache that touches through many families and communities affected by youth suicide.  According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 75 percent of lifetime mental illness begins by age 24.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported the suicide rate among people 10-24 remained stable from 2000-20007, and then increased 56 percent between 2007 and 2017.  The suicide rate from 2013 to 2017 increased annually at a much greater pace (7 percent) than the rate from 2007 to 2013 (3 percent).

Ms. O’Connell had spent the previous 24 years as a registered nurse in the Bryn Mawr area.  She had taken care of numerous patients, each facing their own unique set of challenges.  

Suddenly, she was given her most urgent patient yet, her son.  

His struggle came to light at the exact time their community was struggling to escape darkness.  Downingtown, Pennsylvania had lost four students to suicide in just 11 months. Their peers were distraught and decided to start a petition on Change.org to increase the amount of mental health awareness throughout the school district.  More than 7,000 people signed the petition.

Ms. O’Connell decided to create something that would offer support and guidance to parents with a loved one battling mental illness.  She founded A Path to Hope.

A Path to Hope’s logo. Photo by https://apathtohope.org.

A Broken System

The U.S. healthcare system is not known for its empathy towards mental illness.  In fact, many components of the healthcare system create more difficulties for families.  

When asked about the most shocking flaw in the healthcare system, O’Connell stated how obvious it is that the system lacks accurate information needed to help a loved one struggling.  She pressed the need to increase the amount of available providers and to completely change the insurance-reimbursement schedule, so more providers will accept insurance.

According to Mental Health America (MHA), the amount of youth with private insurance that does not cover mental health issues grew from 4.6 percent to 8.1 percent in five years.  Ten million adults have reported their needs have not been met in mental health care.

Effects of Social Media

Another significant problem can be found on social media platforms.  The pressure of constantly being exposed online is just another stressor that students have to face day-to-day.  

“I feel it has had a major impact on the mental health of all of us,” O’Connell said.  “The suicide rate among 17-25 year olds has doubled in the last 10 years, about the same time social media has taken off. That is no coincidence.”

Downingtown Takes Action

In January 2019, the Downingtown Area School District held a board meeting that lasted over two hours.  The room was filled with members of the community ready to voice their feelings and determined to reach solutions.  Students and their families brought attention to the severe amount of pressure carried down hallways by teens and the lack of genuine relationships between guidance counselors and their assigned students.

Teens stood up and spoke passionately about the persistent need to help each other through life and to build a better environment at school.  Some students did not hold back. They spoke their minds the same way they did in the seat next to me during African Asian Studies class, or on the way to softball practice after school, tenacious and unapologetic.

A Path to Hope’s Progress

The thing Holly O’Connell is most proud of so far?  The fact that her message is being recognized, not stigmatized.  

Her organization has placed over 140 signs around Chester County with powerful messages to help those with mental illness.  O’Connell has received many messages from people who are thankful for the positive impact the signs have had on their lives.

“They are conversation starters and necessary reminders of hope and worth.”

Where does all of this hope come from?

O’Connell held her first mental health resource fair on March 2, 2019.  There were over 30 mental health providers and service representatives and over 200 people who attended.  The second annual fair is set for March 7, 2020. The organization has created significant change in just two years.  

Ms. O’Connell made it clear that she did not plan on advocating for mental health at all, because she was never passionate about the topic.  She views her advocacy work as a responsibility to the path that was chosen for her and her family, fueled by her desire to touch as many lives as possible.

There is a path to hope, and Holly O’Connell is determined to lead it.  Not for a profit, a morality boost or really any credit at all, but as a responsibility.  One she felt as a mother, a Downingtown East Cougar and a human being.

Want to Get Involved?

The annual STEPS Mental Health Resource Fair will take place from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Lionville Middle School in Exton on March 7.  Free suicide prevention training will be offered during the fair. Donate to the organization by clicking on this link https://apathtohope.org.  Signs can be ordered at www.dontgiveupsigns.com.


Faith Pitsikoulis

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