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'It’s literally life-saving.' Kansas teens support each other through mental health struggles

 Hoisington, Kansas high school cheerleaders help with a Zero Reasons Why banner signing at a home football game. Students are encouraged to open up about teen mental health.
Hoisington High School
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Hoisington, Kansas high school cheerleaders help with a Zero Reasons Why banner signing at a home football game. Students are encouraged to open up about teen mental health.

Zero Reasons Why began after a rise in teen suicides. Four years later there’s still work to be done, but officials say the program has contributed to a decline in suicides and an increase in young people reaching out for help.

Chad Harrell was a popular athlete, good student and a rising senior at Blue Valley North High in the summer of 2017. One night he came in late, and his parents grounded him. His mother, Sylvia Harrell, checked on him before she went to bed and found him dead in his room. He’d taken his own life.

“Had I had any inkling, this wouldn’t have happened,” Sylvia Harrell said in 2018. “I would have been outside his room. I would have had my radar up to watch out for this. We were blindsided because Chad Harrell didn’t make bad decisions. The one bad decision he made is horrific.”

Harrell’s was one of five suicides during the 2017-2018 school year in Johnson County’s high-achieving Blue Valley School District. Throughout Johnson County, teen deaths almost doubled in 2018, following a general upward trend over the last several years.

In response, six districts launched a new suicide prevention program called Zero Reasons Why. Now in its fourth year, the program is based on three pillars: more open communication about mental health and suicide; building judgement-free community support and a commitment to mental health; and suicide prevention education consistently, and earlier.

 Misha Raichura alerted an adult when one of her friends talked about death by suicide. She later learned her friend felt betrayed. Zero Reasons Why is trying to help teens deal with the complicated impact of mental health issues.
Laura Ziegler KCUR 89.3
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Misha Raichura alerted an adult when one of her friends talked about death by suicide. She later learned her friend felt betrayed. Zero Reasons Why is trying to help teens deal with the complicated impact of mental health issues.

Students find ways to spread the message

Misha Raichura, now 18, started with Zero Reasons Why several years ago at Blue Valley West. Now a senior, she’s devoting more time to the campaign as a leader of a “teen council,” one of dozens of peer-to-peer hang out sessions where students share what’s going on in their lives. She speaks out about teen mental health at events, such as a recent Bollywood fundraiser by Seva Dance, a non-profit that teaches Indian cultural dances.

Zero Reasons Why sponsors its own events: "yellow-outs" in which students wear yellow, signature T-shirts with the campaign logo; tables with information and wrist bands at school football, basketball and track events; and banner signings where students write messages about their experiences with mental health.

Raichura is especially interested in reaching out to kids in middle school because that was when she started noticing her friends stress out about grades, competition and peer pressure.

“I had a few friends in seventh and eighth grades who’d come to school not at all excited for the day,” she said. “You’d ask them ‘Are you going to this or this activity?’ and they’re just like, ‘Eh, don’t know.’ They don’t have any interest in anything going on.”

She said the the program has helped her decode messages that suggest a kid is at risk. “Usually they wouldn’t use the words ‘depressed’ or ‘take my own life,’” Raichura said. “It would be more like ‘I’m so done with this, I’m just going to end everything.’ Or ‘thank you for being a good friend, while it lasted.’”

But when Raichura had a close friend confide they may be considering self-harm, she reached out to an adult. It was then she found the conversations don’t always go as anticipated.

“A couple of times this person started feeling betrayed and didn’t want to talk to me about how they were feeling anymore, which left them completely alone,” Raichura said. “In the back of my mind, it made me feel like I did something wrong by telling an adult.”

What she learned was how to let adults know she’s concerned without sharing all the details of texts or conversations, messages someone might feel they've shared in confidence.

 Ava Shropshire (right) has found the Zero Reason's Why campaign has connected her to other teens during a difficult transition to a new city. Her brother, Joshua, also participates in the program.
Laura Ziegler
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KCUR 89.3
Ava Shropshire (right) has found the Zero Reason's Why campaign has connected her to other teens during a difficult transition to a new city. Her brother, Joshua, also participates in the program.

Ava Shropshire,17, recently moved to Overland Park from Ohio. She’s home-schooled and recently joined a teen council. She said the stories shared on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have given her a sense of community and comfort while adjusting to a new place.

“I’m not the only one going through this. I’m not weird or crazy,” she said. “Even when I’m just scrolling through my social media, I can see a story and it’s like ‘Oh, I needed that today,’ and it’s a reminder I’m not alone.”

Nationally, suicide is still the third leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24. It’s the second leading cause of death for kids between 10 and 14 years old.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the suicide prevention hotline at 9-8-8 ,or go online to chat at 988lifeline.org/chat.

Students like Shropshire said part of what they need is more trained professionals and resources to educate adults.

“We made some videos specifically for adults,” Shropshire said. “And I’ve gone to the Statehouse and talked to some adults in power. Now we need to see adults stepping up because it can be hard for teens to advocate for more community resources. Zero Reasons Why can’t reach every area of need.”

Shropshire, who is Black, said she's also passionate about serving people from different cultures, exploring the impact of neurodiversity on mental health, and how different families and cultures address mental health and parenting.

Laura Ziegler
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KCUR 89.3

Rahul Chavali, 17, found himself scared to talk to his parents when his stellar grades slipped. A social guy, upbeat and well spoken, who likes to go to the gym and play drums with friends, he felt unmotivated and distracted during the COVID-19 lockdown.

But hearing his peers share similar anxiety gave him confidence to share his experience with his mom and dad, who’d come from a small village in India.

“So, in their mind it was always about working to get to a better place,” Chavali said. “The shift is like, there are still problems you can encounter and there’s still ways you can help your own mental health. You just need to be able to talk about it.”

Expanding to other areas

Statistics on suicide prevention are hard to capture: If something doesn’t happen, there aren’t any numbers to reflect it. But Johnson County officials say deaths by suicide for people under 19 have fallen: 9 in 2018 and 2019; 6 in 2020; 7 in 2021; 4 through September of this year.

Maybe more telling, crisis line calls are up by 125%. That means more people are reaching out for help.

Another indicator of success is the expansion of Zero Reason’s Why into Sedgwick County and a four-county area in central Kansas, and into Jackson County, Missouri.

At Hoisington High in Barton County, Kansas, population roughly 2,500, Kynlie Crowdie said before she got involved last year, she would never reveal her struggles with depression, knowing how fast gossip spread in the small community.

“I knew I looked like I had it all together and everyone else looked like they had it all together,” she said. “I couldn’t tell which one of us was faking it.”

But she said the Zero Reason’s Why story-telling campaign, social media presence and education efforts are making it safer for everyone to open up.

“We talk about the successes we’ve had,” she said. “But we’ve had some criticisms. People telling us this is not important for us to discuss. That we should move on and find something else to figure out. It’s not a waste of time in any way, shape or form. It’s literally lifesaving.”

Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Laura Ziegler began her career at KCUR as a reporter more than 20 years ago. She became the news director in the mid 1980's and in 1988, went to National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. as a producer for Weekend Edition Saturday with Scott Simon.