Juanita Aniceto was starting to get worried.
As a youth support specialist with the Salem Drop, a youth community center-slash-support network, she invests a lot of time, energy and care into the young people she works with.
When a boy she had been working with for a while told her no one cared about him, and he might as well not even be here, she was concerned. But she was able to check in on him when he came to the Drop.
Then, one day, he didn’t show up. He also didn’t respond to Aniceto’s texts checking in. She waited, another day went by. Still no response. As time passed on that second day, she became more distraught. Did something happen? Is he still alive?
Just as she received permission from her boss to go check on him in person, the boy walked through the door.
Aniceta sunk into a nearby chair, frazzled but relieved.
“I couldn't stop crying,” Aniceto said. “Because for a minute, I thought he had died by suicide.”
Aniceto said sometimes it’s difficult to convince the kids she works with they’re more than a job. But this moment convinced the boy.
“He started crying,” she said. “And he said, ‘Now, you’ve given me a reason to live.’”
The teen told her that when he thinks of dying by suicide, he remembers how the idea of him dying brought Aniceto to tears. He tells her, “I know there's somebody that cares about me, so because of that reason I can't give up on myself.”
“That's the number one thing,” Aniceto said. “[Young people] need somebody to believe in them,” she said.
And that goes for all kids, not just those who are currently depressed or suicidal, she said.
“All youth are at risk,” said Caitlin VanWagenen, group coordinator for the Salem Drop. “So everybody needs support, needs somebody that they can count on to be their support system.”
So where can kids turn to when they’re struggling?
The Salem Drop is not what you think it is. If a passerby peered through the cartoon-festooned glass windows that look out onto State Street, they would see a TV and video game console, a pool table, a bank of computers and set of 3-D printers. A cafe setup in the back serves up snacks and drinks.
The Salem Drop is a community center - hence the fun stuff - but it’s also an entry point to connect students with the Drop’s peer support specialists, trained 20-somethings who can help young people ages 14 to 25 navigate adolescent and early adult struggles - everything from creating a resume to making a professional phone call to providing a safe space to vent.
Emily Bogan, a McNary junior, comes to the Drop a couple times a week during the school year. She discovered it soon after it opened a year ago.
“I initially thought, this is a cool place. And I came in and then the staff are super supportive,” Bogan said. From the get-go, the Drop staff told her if she needed anything, “‘We’re here for you.’ So I started talking to them and they really helped,” Bogan said.
The “Drop model,” as the center’s parent organization Youth ERA calls it, is effective because there’s no stigma for a young person to come to the community center and play a round of pool, and then maybe stick around to chat about a problem they’re having.
While the Drop’s peer support specialists are not clinicians, they are trained in supporting youth who are struggling and can help them get connected with the resources they need. When a young person gets officially connected with Drop staff, they meet them about every other week to talk and find out what the youth’s needs are.
Sometimes, the Drop staff says, that’s helping a young person make a call to their insurance to see if they can make a doctor’s appointment or referring them to other community services that could be useful. Other times, that’s handing them a bag of Cheetos and beating them in a game of pool.
“Us not coming across directly as like a mental health organization gets everyone to come in and reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, to get them to feel like they have people who they’re connected to,” VanWagenen said.
To find out more about Salem Drop visit www.youthera.org/salem-drop or swing by 246 State Street, Salem, OR 97301.
Prior to volunteering at the YouthLine, 19-year-old Sophie Rupp wanted to help her peers. But sometimes her approach wasn’t as helpful as she thought.
“When someone tells you they’re suffering, the instinct is to jump in, give advice and help in any way, to fix their problem,” Rupp said.
That was until she started volunteering at the YouthLine as one of the Portland-based crisis line’s peer operators. After the 63 hours of training Rupp received - the training includes role-playing caller situations, listening in on sessions, and certifications in mental health first aid, suicide identification, and suicide intervention, among other trainings - she realized that the ‘jump in and fix it’ method wasn’t the right approach for people struggling with their mental health.
“The training shows that that’s not what most people need, they need to sit in the muck and sit in that space,” she said. “We can just say that really sucks and they’ll say ‘yes it does suck’ and ‘thank you for listening to me.’”
Sheherazade Weyland, 18, also volunteers at the YouthLine. As someone who has struggled with anxiety and other mental health problems herself, she knows how difficult it can be to reach out for help. But being in such a mental health-conscious environment, she said, has made her better able to cope with her own condition.
One of her favorite parts of her shift is the pre-shift huddle, where one of the adult supervisors gives the volunteers a space to vent and share how they’re feeling.
“You weren’t going to be treated differently because you were struggling, but you were going to get some support within that huddle, and then we’d all go off and get back to work,” Weyland said.
This environment, she said, “definitely changed the way I support other people. I’m much more hopeful now,” she said. “And I think it’s easier to give other people hope.”
That’s something the YouthLine volunteers emphasize: there’s no shame in asking for help, regardless of what kind of help they need. Calls range in topic from romantic woes to suicidal thoughts. And the YouthLine volunteers are trained not only to listen, but also to advise callers on coping skills and self-care techniques. These behaviors are important for youth to develop as early as possible, Weyland said.
“Yes, this person is 13 and reaching out to us because of a crush, but if they aren’t supported with that, and they don’t learn how to cope with that, how are they going to cope with their first breakup? With their divorce in 30 years?” Weyland asked, rhetorically. “How are they ever going to get out of the unhealthy coping mechanisms that we naturally create if there’s never a starting point?”
The YouthLine can be that starting point. “We’re helping teens learn help-seeking behaviors and we’re helping them learn healthy coping mechanisms,” Weyland said.
The YouthLine is staffed by young volunteers every day between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. All other times of day and night, adults answer calls.
Text: teen2teen to 839863
Online chat: oregonyouthline.org.
SafeOregon Tip Line
For students who witness their friends or classmates going through mental health struggles, there’s also an outlet to try to get help: the SafeOregon Tip Line.
The tip line - which receives tips from students via call, text, email, mobile app or the SafeOregon web portal - is designed as a safe place to report safety threats, bullying (online or in person), harassment, but also students who may be suicidal or at risk of harming themselves.
“There wasn’t really an avenue for students to report things they were worried about with their friends, and have an adult take a look at it,” said Dominique Millette, a data analyst for the SafeOregon line.
The tip line is not only for students, but also school staff who may have the knowledge and resources to help but aren’t told about student concerns.
“We’ve heard this from a lot of administrators that they normally wouldn’t get [this type of information] about their students, because we’re allowing students to be the ears and eyes when we can’t be as adults,” Millette said. “So they’re giving us information and then it allows the adults to do the investigative piece, see how they can help and then provide … whatever is needed at that point.”
The tip form asks for information including the school associated with the incident, details surrounding the incident and the names of those who may be doing harm or being harmed. Those who report a tip have the option to remain anonymous.
Once a student leaves a tip, staff at SafeOregon will alert the school involved with the incident, and the school then takes action on the tip. If the matter is really urgent - as in there’s an active threat to someone’s health - the SafeOregon staff will refer the tip to law enforcement. According to SafeOregon, 77 percent of their tips get referred to the schools.
Since the tip line launched in January 2017, it has received thousands of tips, many related to suicide, self-harm and depression. Suicide threats reported by someone other than the suicidal person ranked as the third largest tip category, behind bullying and drug concerns.
SafeOregon’s annual report holds up the example of a case in Hermiston, Ore., where a concerned young person alerted the line after receiving text messages from a friend about their intent to kill themselves. The line called local police, who found the teen unconscious, but were able to revive him and get him to the hospital in time to avoid his death.
“In terms of success, we’ve already saved lives. We’ve helped students get mental health services, we’ve helped in child abuse situations,” Millette said. “We feel like it’s been an extremely successful program.”
There are multiple ways to report a tip to SafeOregon.
Online: Visit app.safeoregon.com
App: Download the SafeOregon app via iTunes or Google Play
Phone: Text or call 844-472-3367
Email: Send a message to [email protected]
Reporter Casey Chaffin, spent three months working on this issue at The Oregonian and the Keizertimes, including traveling to Minnesota to see how teen mental health services work in a state that is more highly rated in its treatment efforts. You can read her Oregonian/Oregonlive coverage here.