Anchor Project moves online in youth suicide prevention efforts

Anchors that students can wear or pass along to others to spread the message. (Submitted photo)

When she started the Anchor Project at Caesar Rodney High School, mental health therapist Christina Eilers wanted to channel the message that “we are all connected.” As with many things this year, the Anchor Project has had to evolve, but even with physical distance, the message of encouraging connecting students to resources remains the throughline.

“Oftentimes when someone is passing an ‘anchor’ card, they aren’t necessarily doing that because they think of somebody at risk for immediate suicide. They’re saying, ‘Hey, I’m worried about you and I want to talk about it,’ or, ‘Hey, I’m worried about you. Have you thought about getting some help?’” said Ms. Eilers, a licensed clinical social worker and a counselor at Caesar Rodney’s Wellness Center. “It’s that kind of connection that can continue on, even during these strange times.”

September marks Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and suicide is the leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24, said Malia Boone, youth crisis services program manager for Mobile Response and Stabilization Services (MRSS) at Delaware Guidance Services.

“That is an increase for that younger age bracket,” she said in a separate interview. “We have seen teens, 15 and older, moving up into that second leading cause of death previously, but only in the last few years have we seen the 10 to 14 year old age range moving up as well. I think really what that means is kids in middle school are struggling more than they used to, that they’re making attempts more than they used to.”

In mid-September, MRSS had done 109 assessments and 35 of those were feeling suicidal, or about 32% of kids and teenagers they assessed, she said. In August, MRSS responded to 50 suicidal youth in the whole month. She said those statistics are an increase from last year.

Schools are one of the biggest referral sources for MRRS and, with children not being in school buildings largely across the state, there has been a challenge connecting with families.

“This time last year, kids were in their school buildings and we were getting calls from schools saying, ‘We have kids coming to us,’ or ‘We’re noticing that they’re not seeming to be doing as well as they were when they first started school,’ or ‘We’re hearing from other students that the student is thinking about suicide or having a hard time with something,’ so we can intervene earlier on in the process of getting help for someone who’s struggling,” she said. “Whereas now, the difference is we’re seeing is we’ve done assessments for kids who have taken overdoses, or who have already made attempts of suicide.”

Signs that children and teens might be struggling include acting more irritable than normal, isolating more than normal or seeming sad for extended periods of time. But for educators, those might be hard to spot virtually, Ms. Boone said.

Virtual signs to look for can be: are students logging on, are they turning their cameras on, are they engaged in lessons and are they taking care of their hygiene. She noted that sometimes teenagers say they “don’t want to be here anymore” or “want to disappear,” which can be more than teenage angst.

“Those can be things that educators are just touching base with students about, just touching base to see if everything is going OK,” she said, adding, “But I also know that our teachers are overwhelmed right now with trying to put together assignments, put together what they’re going to do on their virtual platforms — and then reaching out to multiple students can also be challenging while they’re doing all kinds of extra things as well.”

For parents, there are resources within schools they can turn to, she said.

Connecting students with mental health resources is always important, said Ms. Eilers, but even more so this year.

“In the mental health world, we really prefer that word of we’re having to be ‘physically’ distanced from each other versus ‘socially’ distanced,” she said. “With so much going on and so much distance between us, even a little bit of connection [matters].”

In a typical year, the Anchor Project cards would be passed out at tables this month, or would have appeared in Ms. Eilers’s office, or the nurse’s office. The cards, about the size of business cards, would have a message of hope printed on the front; on the back, a list of resources — like the crisis text hotline or national suicide prevention hotline number. Attached are small anchor charms.

“When I started the anchor program, I had sort of these big ideas of everybody putting their anchor on their bookbag and walking around and really using it as just an awareness concept,” she said. “What I’ve seen a lot is many people wanting to take the anchor and put it somewhere to remind themselves, ‘Hey, help is out there,’ or ‘I’ve got this’ — that little message of hope. A lot of it has been more passing an anchor card on to a friend, versus necessarily wearing that anchor.”

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.

This year, the messaging is being done online, through social media using the tagline of passing the anchor on, with resources and numbers and a message of hope.

“For my school in particular that knows the Anchor program already, I felt like posting something on social media — which is how we get to our students at times or get them to pay attention to that message — would really make sense because it was that language that was already there,” she said. “We also offered that to some of the other schools as well, just to promote, hey, this is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, this is something we are talking about.”

Beyond the Anchor Project, each Wellness Center is open, and medical and mental health providers are on-site. Members may schedule appointments and attend in-person with scheduled appointments or request a telephone call or telehealth visit.

“Many of the students that we would normally be seeing way more often, we want to make sure that they know the services are still there,” she said, noting that her school has about 600 freshmen who don’t yet know the services or the Wellness Center. Providers want to make sure they’re connecting with them, too.

Since passing out those charms and cards is a bit different this year, Ms. Eilers is hoping centers and schools build a “coping kit” that can be passed out during a drive thru for school supplies. It’d include the Anchor card, a stress ball, information on substance abuse prevention resources and more.

The image of the anchor was something that had multiple connotations, Ms. Eilers said, which is why she has tied it to mental wellness.

“In my mind, [the anchor] was not just as sort of a symbol for suicide prevention, but also as that analogy of: an anchor can be whatever we need it to be at that moment,” she said. “At that moment, it might be that I need to go inside myself, use my coping skills and anchor myself to get through the next difficult moment, or that I need to say, ‘Hey, I need to reach out to my other anchors; I need to call somebody for help,’ or, ‘Hey, I can throw an anchor to somebody else that needs help and that helps me, too.’ Really, however that looks.”