When Jeff Yalden spoke to parents and teachers last week at the Performing Arts Center at Dawson County High School, some of the things he said took people aback.
The well-known speaker bluntly told the 30 or so parents who came out for his talk about mental health and suicide:
"It's real. The crap has hit the fan," he said. "The school is doing something about it. The school is asking questions. The school wants to make sure we don't have to go through this again.
"Don't look to the school to change things. The school is putting things in place but where change needs to happen is with us in this room, with our families," Yalden said.
With five teen suicides over the past three years in Dawson County, he told parents that it is serious and important and the community wants answers. However, there may not be any.
There may not be any simple answers and the responsibility ultimately lies with the parents, he said.
According to Yalden's web site, he is North America's No.1 youth motivational speaker and an expert on teen suicide. He is also a radio show host, an author and is known as "the teen whisperer."
Janice Darnell, the director of student support for Dawson County Schools and Superintendent Damon Gibbs first heard about Yalden right before Christmas.
"The school district has conducted five different community workshops on suicide awareness and prevention since December," Darnell said. "We wanted to have a final event for the year for our students and families and were able to schedule Jeff on April 26."
Yalden's expertise and advice are born from personal experience as well as years of dealing with those broken and defeated by suicide.
He has spoken to four million people since 1992 and he isn't worried about stepping on toes when he does it.
"We need to get comfortable being uncomfortable talking about mental health," he said.
Dressed in shorts and flip-flops, Yalden's casual demeanor helped people relax while addressing sensitive, life-altering topics.
He spoke to eighth grade students from the junior high as well as DCHS students in a separate assembly on April 26.
"The message to students did include the topic of suicide, but his focus was a message of encouragement and hope," Darnell said. "Jeff talked with the students about making good choices...healthy choices such as getting enough sleep, taking a break from electronics and helping others."
The evening talk was designed for the parents.
"Ms. Darnell can't stand up here and say ‘you know ladies and gentlemen we need to move forward.' You guys can look at that and be like ‘oh my gosh, she's so insensitive' and we want to attack...where you bring in an outsider and then it kind of makes sense where I can say, ‘unfortunately we have got to do this. So and so is not walking through the door, we need to now move forward,'" he said.
After making that clear, Yalden went straight to whose responsibility it is to help the teens in Dawson County: Their parents.
"The No. 1 influence in our children's lives should be our parents," he said.
He challenged parents as to whether or not their child would choose them first to go to in the event of an immediate need.
"If your child is distraught, would they come to you first?" he asked.
Kids want to know two things: Can I trust you? Do you care about me? Yalden said.
According to Yalden, the average family in America has less than three and a half minutes a day of meaningful communication.
That communication is essential if parents want to be available for their kids.
Frequently it is a matter of determining if the child would like to have the parent listen or give an opinion. Most of the time, it is just wanting someone to listen.
Yalden said that the more a parent listens, the more the child will eventually tell.
Part of the ongoing communication issues in the community stem from cell phones and social media, but Yalden does not advocate removing either of those things from their teenage kids.
"It is your responsibility to teach your kids boundaries, to have balance in their life, to learn how to use cell phones and social media. It is not going away. As a matter of fact, it is going to become more prevalent in our lives," he said.
Yalden's practical tips seem common sense, but the simple steps offer easy ways to make changes to ultimately help kids distinguish between reality what they see on their social media.
"It is not the reality of our lives. It is this glorified: look what I did today. How do you teach kids that? What does this lead to?
"It leads to isolation, feelings of comparisons as they see they are not as popular or as accepted as others," he said.
Simple measures like having kids turn their phones in at night can have a direct, practical and positive effect.
For a child to have their phone all night means, notifications that will wake them, in turn contributing to lost sleep as well as a possible negative impact from what is seen which will in turn only make them less healthy and happy in the long run.
He explained that teens live in the here and now. It is a mentality that they will miss something if they are not connected 24/7 and that is not a necessity.
Yalden advocates for families having cell-phone free days or meals and for parents to teach things that will never change-like the importance of learning one-on-one communication skills.
Kids should be able to communicate with their parents face-to-face and not via text from across the room.
Though Yalden's directives are practical, realistic and most likely easily instituted at home, he made one thing clear when it comes to parents and the mental health of their children: Being a parent does not equate to being a mental health professional.
He covered a variety of symptoms of teen depression like withdrawing, lack of energy, anger, fatigue, irritability, sadness, weight changes, indifference, pessimism, anxiety, sickness and suicidal thoughts. While any of those symptoms could be a normal teen attribute, four to five of them for two weeks or more would be considered a red flag.
Once a parent learns the symptoms and is able to identify warning signs, they are more able to seek professional help for the child if the need arises.
After 25 years of therapy himself, Yalden is an advocate for therapy and medication, if necessary.
He likened it to going to the eye doctor when you have trouble seeing. You have blurry vision, you get help. It may simply mean you need glasses, but the professional needs to determine what kind of help.
Some kids respond to therapy alone and others require therapy and medication, but to Yalden neither are things to shy away from.
"I don't think people want to die," he said. "I think people want help, but don't know how to ask."
Yalden also gave basic information on the different types of depression from major depresson to dysthymia to adjustment disorder. Each can lead to suicide if left untreated and a teen feels there is no way out.
He stressed that despite the images currently portrayed through social media and the like, no one is supposed to be happy all the time.
Yalden also gave a list of warning signs for parents and friends to consider. There are direct and indirect verbal clues, when a person expresses a desire to die or take their own life.
He also said behavioral clues can give parents an indicator. If their child is suddenly giving away their most cherished belongings and saying some type of goodbye to people, that is considered a behavioral clue.
Other warning signs include situational clues which could involve a circumstance like a boyfriend breaking up with his girlfriend. In the mind of a teen who lives in the here and now, that type of situation can mean devastation.
Ultimately, Yalden said that kids should learn from their parents that failure is ok. There are times when people fall and when they do, they need to know how to get back up.
Adversity is something everyone will face.
Sometimes it's a struggle to get up, sometimes the person has to "sit a minute."
"When we sit back down we start to process this. Am I ready? I need another moment. I need another day. I need another week. At this point you start thinking, ‘do I need help?' Maybe I do need to talk to someone. That is one thing we need to teach our kids today that it is ok to ask. It is ok to come to me," he said.
Yalden offered a brief question and answer session following his talk.
"The most important thing is the hope that those who heard the presentation walked away with something that will help them in their day-to-day lives individually, as students, as parents, grandparents, friends and as a community," Darnell said. "Our community is made stronger one by one."