SOUTH BRUNSWICK – Four years ago, Kris Velez, an eighth grade student at Crossroads Middle School South, lost a person close to him from death by suicide.
“That made my depression a lot more present,” he said.
For two years, he said it was hard to leave his house.
At that point, he said he realized he was transgender. He said he wanted to be the girl everyone wanted him to be, but decided to come out to his mother about a year ago.
“Her being accepting and supporting definitely made my life better then,” Kris said.
However, Kris said his father, who was living with his stepmother at the time, was not as accepting.
“It was very painful,” he said.
With his depression deepening, Kris said he “wasn’t able to go to school. I cared too much about what people thought about me.
“Soon after, I started to hurt myself.”
After a hospitalization, he said, “I forgot how beautiful life was, how precious it was.”
Choosing to attend mental health programs, he said he made the decision to heal himself.
“I wanted to be able to go to school and see my friends and I wanted to make friends,” Kris said.
He said he really pushed himself over the summer to get better.
“Don’t hide. Don’t lie. … It’s OK not to be OK,” he said.
After Kris’s powerful admission, dozens of community members lined up behind a purple and blue balloon arch to begin the Suicide Awareness Walk in Woodlot Park.
Held by the South Brunswick School District, in collaboration with the Rutgers’ School Based Youth Services, on Sept. 29, the purpose was to raise awareness of the 30 percent increase since 1999 and the 41,000 people who die by suicide each year.
“My hope is that with events just like this, we can eliminate thoughts of shame and stigma,” said emcee Jacquelyn Novick, the youth development coordinator for School-Based Youth Services at Crossroads South.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2014, suicide was the second leading cause of death among young people ages 10-24.
“I think it’s very important for our community, very important because as women we also suffer from suicide, and it’s important to support everyone in our community in their mental health issues,” said Azra Baig, the school board’s liaison to the South Brunswick Commission on Women.
Lisa Powell, the director of Outreach Services for NAMI NJ (National Alliance on Mental Illness), said youth are so susceptible because of bullying, stress within the home, and the impact of social media.
“Starting with elementary students is the key – getting it at an early age and educating them at an early age that it’s OK to talk to someone,” she said.
NAMI usually refers patients to its outreach partner, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
According to the NIMH, risk factors for suicide include depression, anxiety, mental disorders, substance abuse, chronic pain, prior suicide attempt, family history of suicide, family violence, firearms in the home and having recently been released from jail.
Warning signs include talking about wanting to die, making a plan, buying a gun or stockpiling pills, feeling trapped or unbearable pain, increasing the use of substances, withdrawing from family or friends, showing rage, displaying extreme mood swings or saying goodbye to loved ones.
NAMI also offers referrals to organizations such as AACT-NOW (African American Mental Health Outreach), CAMHOP-NJ (Chinese American Mental Health Outreach Program in New Jersey), NAMI NJ en Espanol, and SAMHAJ (South Asian Mental Health Awareness in Jersey), since Powell said, “Some cultures feel more comfortable talking among their own group of people.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK. Or, visit www.nimh.nih.gov/findhelp
Contact Jennifer Amato at firstname.lastname@example.org.