‘Anchor’ suicide prevention at work in school wellness centers

The Wellness Center team at Caesar Rodney High School, where the Anchor program began, includes, from left, Caesar Rodney High School Wellness Center Counselor Christina Eilers, LCSW; Registered Dietitian Sheila Quickel; Nurse Practitioner Kim Ross-Tilley and Administrative Assistant Tammy Graw. Submitted photos

DOVER — When Christina Eilers began the Anchor Project at Caesar Rodney High School, she wanted to get mental health resources into the hands of as many students as possible.

“The goal was to not only have a card to give to people as a resource, but in a high school, have another avenue for students to share with other students, and connect them to services,” said Ms. Eilers, a licensed clinical social worker and a counselor at Caesar Rodney’s Wellness Center.

Currently, seven Bayhealth Wellness Centers are located in Downstate high schools. The centers focus on teenagers’ physical health, as well as their nutritional, mental and emotional wellbeing. Services are provided in cooperation with the family’s physician.
“Just the fact we’re swamped every single day kind of speaks to the need,” Ms. Eilers said.

The wellness center was awarded a grant a few years ago that provided flexibility and creativity, but allowed for a limited scope financially. Looking at other programs, Ms. Eilers said that she took inspiration from different mental health initiatives to create the Anchor Project.

On the front of a card — the size of a business card — there’s a message of hope, Ms. Eilers said.

“We chose that symbol because it can be used a lot of different ways,” she said. “Anchoring to a resource, anchoring to a friend or family member, to your own strength; it’s that connectedness piece.”

On the back of the card, a list of resources — like the crisis text hotline or national suicide prevention hotline number — are compiled.

“What I have seen is that students are the first ones to know if their friends are in trouble, but they don’t always tell somebody else,” she said. “There’s the whole stigma of not wanting to tell on your friends.”

Through the wellness center and its resources, Ms. Eilers said that students learn “how to talk to somebody who may be depressed, how to be there for them, how to connect them to services.”

The card is adorned with an anchor charm, which Ms. Eilers says students have worn on their backpacks. Some staff members wear them on their lanyards, all as a sign that there are people there to support students who may need help.

When the program started, Ms. Eilers said that about 2,000 cards were printed, with the majority of them distributed through homeroom and classes.

The cards have been available at tables during National Suicide Prevention Month in September. Cards are also available in Ms. Eilers’s office, or the nurse’s office.

The Bayhealth Wellness Center at Caesar Rodney High School was recently given a check for $2,000 thanks to a dance benefit held by Works of Heart that was held to raise money for the Anchor Project, which aims to raise awareness for suicide prevention. From left, are Works of Heart dancer Alayna Gumpman; Wellness Center Mental Health Counselor Christina Eilers, LCSW; Works of Heart Founder Renée Friend; CR High School Assistant Principal Larry Friend; and Works of Heart dancer Ellie Hardee.

“It’s been the natural progression, which is what I was hoping for, to check in the morning to see how many are out there and they’re gone,” she said. “They definitely need to be replenished every day or two.”

While the program was successful, the grant funding eventually ran out.

“One of the things we are often trained in, in therapy, is having a good rapport with people and building a therapeutic alliance,” Ms. Eilers said. “At the school, because it is student-driven, they are the ones initiating help for themselves frequently.”

One of those student-driven initiatives is Works of Heart — a student choreography showcase that started as a class project and has grown into a multi-year fundraising effort that supports worthy causes that impact the peers and community of Renee Friend, a senior at Dover High School.

Most recently, the event raised $2,000, which was donated to the Anchor Project.

“I chose the Anchor Project because I think that’s a topic that people don’t talk about often,” she said. “A lot of kids may not think that they have people that are there for them.”

The proceeds raised supported Bayhealth Wellness Center at Caesar Rodney High School, where Renee’s father, Larry Friend, is the assistant principal and the showcase is held, and Dover High School, where the program is also already established.

The donation will help begin the program at wellness centers throughout the state.

“It was super cool, especially at my school when I saw that the anchors were being handed out. I was like, ‘Wow. The money that I raised went to my own school,’” Renee said.

Ms. Eilers said that the choreography showcase left her in awe.

“To be honest, it was one of the highlights of my career,” she said. “Not just because they chose my little idea, but the fact that it was so student driven was very inspiring. Ninety percent of [the dancers in the showcase] chose songs about hope and perseverance, which went along with that whole concept.”

She added that it also facilitated connectedness with the project, as the dancers come from multiple schools.

Anchors that students can wear or pass along to others to spread the message.

Since beginning five years ago, the choreography showcase — which is largely organized by Renee and her father — has grown to involve more than 80 dancers from the area. The money is raised from mostly ticket sales, she said.

“I knew that I wanted it to be presented by students because that’s always something I love to do,” she said, noting that her age often barred her from that. “So I wanted to give them an opportunity to do that in my show, as well as raise money.”

As part of the assignment in middle school, proceeds from the first showcase were donated to St. Jude’s. The benefit has also raised funds for Special Olympics and lymphoma and leukemia research. For its fifth year, Works of Heart will benefit breast cancer research.

The showcase is typically held before spring break.This year’s showcase will be held at Caesar Rodney on April 5, but the work begins months earlier. While planning a showcase has its difficulties, it’s more than worth it to Renee.

“I feel like it’s important to give back. A lot of people aren’t blessed the way that I am or the way that other dancers are and a lot of the girls and boys are passionate about it and the parents love it,” she said. “People tell me all the time that Works of Heart is one of their favorite events out of the whole entire year.”

The money that Renee raised will help the Anchor Project take shape at other wellness centers in the state starting this year, Ms. Eilers said.

“I’ve seen it be successful in having kids show up. One of the first questions I ask them is: what brings them here today? I’ve seen it a dozen times — ‘My friend gave me this card and said they were worried about me,’ ‘My friend brought me here and said I needed to talk to somebody right away,’” Ms. Eilers said. “That, to me, is success, that the kids are passing them on.”