School-wide dialogue proves effective in raising stigma surrounding suicide


Photo by Emma Russell '17

Dennis Liegghio speaking to Grosse Pointe South students about suicide.

Emma Russell, Staff Writer

Personal, responsibility and hope. Those are some of the words guest speaker, Dennis Liegghio, wanted students to walk away with after his speech he made this past week.

“I think it was probably this last presentation where I framed that the best, I said, ‘Wherever you’re at, whatever has happened is not your fault, but it’s now your responsibility.’ I think that’s really important because number one, there is hope, you can get through things and number two, you have to want to help yourself, because if you don’t want to help yourself, there’s no body in the world that can help you,” Liegghio said.

People of the ages 15 to 24 are losing their lives to suicide, he said. After discovering that suicide is the second leading cause for young people, Liegghio gravitated towards speaking primarily to students.

“My dad was 42 when he died. I’ve had a number of friends over my lifetime die around the same age, it’s middle age white guys that are at the highest risk for suicide, by the way,” Liegghio said. “So, I think it’s really important, because now is the time that you’re still adapting and learning. You can learn these skills and you can apply these things to the rest of your life, so when bad things happen, and it will, you know how to deal with it.”

Liegghio came to realize that high school was the place to begin speaking at because that tends to be when it starts. So, people who kill themselves at forty years old, those feelings and behaviors began when they were very young, he said.

“If you can get to people while they’re young and before they’re in the tunnel, then you’re long term approach is 20 years from now there will be less suicides, because here is a generation of kids that are equip with knowledge and tools that were not available to other people,” Liegghio said.

South Counselor Beth Walsh-Sahutske found herself feeling very impressed with the outcome of each meeting.

“I thought that he was outstanding, and I felt that the kids were engaged and invested in what he had to say,” Walsh-Sahutske said. “I mean our students are fantastic, they’re always awesome about being respectful, but beyond being respectful I think they were really engaged in what he had to say. It was a good message and I thought he did a nice job sharing it.”

By bringing in this guest speaker, counselors can further promote the whole idea of maintaining a well being. They want to make students look beyond any one element of what it means to be healthy, Walsh-Sahutske said. An example of that is making sure student’s schedules are well balanced, that they are challenging themselves appropriately. Another is discussing relaxation techniques and such when holidays and exam week roll in, she said.

“When we get into holidays and we get into exam week, we start talking about relaxation techniques and those kind of things,” Walsh-Sahutske said. “So, I think that’s all part of a wellness initiative. I want to include what he had to say as part of that umbrella of being well means taking care of mind, body and soul. All of those things are a part of being healthy, being well.”

One of the goals for Walsh-Sahutske was to normalize the topic of suicide. The success of that goal was seen by the handfuls of students that felt comfortable enough to follow up with counselors, she said.

“I also think, like he (Liegghio) was saying, for other folks, it served other purposes beyond the need to talk to a counselor,” Walsh-Sahutske said. “So, for example I talked with a kid today who said, ‘This is one of those things that a lot of my friends struggle with, that I struggle with, and we haven’t really talked with each about it, because it’s just one of those topics that you don’t really bring up with your friends. So, we started talking about it with each other again, and that was really helpful because, you don’t say those things out loud.’ That’s part of what we want to do with mental health, be able to talk about these things and make this part of being healthy all around.”

With friends who have struggled with a lot of the topics that were discussed in the speech, Louise Brady ’17 felt that she better understood where people were coming from. Learning how to help people in situations addressed in the speech will help now and in the future, Brady said.

“Overall, I thought it was really cool. It had a lot of good points, not only telling the story to get people intrigued and connected, but it also had what to do in certain situations,” Brady said. “Which I thought was really helpful, because even if we don’t directly see it, obviously it’s happening in our school and our community.” With so many students struggling with the same issues all around, reactions from students tend to remain the same, Liegghio said.

“You’re always going to have people that are really into it and affected by it and are walking away with something. You’re always going to have people that are not so concerned about the message, but you hope that a seed is being planted somewhere,” Liegghio said. “I think a lot of it is the same, because the things that we struggle with are so universal.”

Something that Liegghio had to overcome when giving these speeches was watching reactions from students. With juniors and seniors staying relatively calmer than freshmen and sophomores, Liegghio had to refocus the way he dealt with the varying age groups, he said.

“When I first started doing this, I took everything very personally, if somebody was talking or laughing or sleeping, but you have to remember that different people react in different ways to what’s going on inside. So, if they’re hearing something that makes them really uncomfortable, then something outwardly physical is happening for them to deal with whatever those feelings are,” Liegghio said. “That was an interesting thing to learn overtime, to not take things so personally.”

A message like this one is something that will definitely be brought back in years to follow, Walsh-Sahutske said. Typically, the same speakers are not brought back, unless the school had a fresh set of students in order to keep variety.

Liegghio’s goal was to leave students with a number of messages, he said.

“Find your voice and never give up hope. There was a line of dialogue on this show that I’ve been watching, that really spoke to me. ‘It is the children that the world tries to break that change the world.’ I think that’s really powerful,” Liegghio said.