Virtual Event for Teens and Parents aims to Prevent Suicide through Awareness

Nonprofit organization Empower Somerset and Somerset County Department of Human Services
(SCDHS) are partnering to offer “Eliminating the Stigma,” a virtual event for middle and high school
students and their parents on Tuesday, October 27 th from 6:00 to 7:30 pm. The event aims to prevent
suicide by raising awareness and reducing the stigma around seeking help.

Anyone interested in attending should complete the online registration form to reserve their spot and
receive the instructions on how to join the virtual meeting. Students must be accompanied by a parent or
other adult for this presentation, which will cover sensitive subject matter.

The event will include a discussion on mental health and suicide prevention with guest speakers Meg
Isbitski, Somerset County Assistant Mental Health Administrator, and Sheryl Weber of Ohio, a retired
high school teacher and coach with 38 years of experience. The event will also include a question and
answer segment and an interactive quiz game with prizes.

Weber will share her personal story as a mother who lost her daughter, Natalie, to suicide just fifteen days
before her 20 th birthday in 2012. Natalie Weber was a sophomore at Kent State University at the time,
with aspirations of becoming a fashion designer and plans to utilize her career as an opportunity to be an
advocate for mental health.

“When she died, I decided that I needed to be her voice, and share my experiences both with her mental
illness and also with her suicide,” said Sheryl Weber in a phone interview. Weber said that her daughter first began showing symptoms of mental illness around middle school, and that a guidance counselor and cheerleading coach were among the first adults to reach out expressing concern. The family responded, providing counseling and support, but there was a misdiagnosis along the way, times that Natalie’s symptoms seemed like typical teenage development, and times when the severity of her illness was masked by her continued achievement and strong attendance in school. Weber has made many public presentations to a wide variety of audiences, and says that she hopes the main takeaway for her audiences is that signs of suicide risk should be taken seriously, and suicide can be prevented if people are aware of the warning signs and know how to respond. In her presentation, Weber will share her personal story and a short video on recognizing signs and knowing what to do. “Teenagers don’t ever want to tell on their friend,” said Weber. “It’s so important that if someone is talking about it, then they are thinking about it. Even if the person gets mad at you, you’re going to be able to sleep at night because you know you tried to help them.”

Another important message Weber hopes to convey, and the theme of the event, is that people who are
suffering from a mental illness are not to blame for their symptoms, and that help is available.
“The behavior of a person can be crazy, but the person’s not crazy. The person’s ill. They have an illness
that they’ve done nothing to cause,” said Weber. “Because of the illness, sometimes they do crazy things.
But they’re not crazy, the behavior is. I think that’s important for people to realize because we throw that
word ‘crazy’ around all the time.”

Shifting the perspective on mental illness is a shared goal of the two organizations partnering to offer this
event, and the reason for Somerset County’s Stigma Free Campaign. “Learning how to talk about mental health is one of the biggest barriers to first having the conversation,” said Meg Isbitski, Somerset County Assistant Mental Health Administrator, who will also be speaking at the event. “We are fearful of saying the wrong thing or getting in over our heads, but becoming any ally is as easy as asking someone if they’re okay.”

Empower Somerset similarly works to promote this message throughout the community. Several staff members are certified instructors of Mental Health First Aid, a course they offer regularly that teaches warning signs, an action plan to assist someone in need of help, and mental health resources that are available in our local communities. The agency also coordinates a Youth Advisory Board of students from seven central New Jersey counties that work on peer-led initiatives to prevent teen suicide and end the stigma.

Both Empower Somerset and SCDHS help people connect with local resources for mental health counseling and support. Staff of Pioneer Family Success Center, a program of Empower Somerset, provide assistance in Spanish and English to connect people to a variety of local community support services. Somerset County’s website includes an online guide to mental health services available in both English and Spanish.
The pandemic and extended period of distance learning is one reason Empower Somerset and SCDHS are
offering this event now.

“We are seeing incredible increases in feelings of isolation, anxiety, and fear,” said Isbitski.  “Reducing the stigma of mental health is imperative for our entire community, but especially our youth.” The virtual event on October 27 will provide information, encouragement and local resources, emphasizing that help is available and there is hope for those who are suffering with mental illness. “My goal is always if I can just reach one person,” said Weber. “You can make a difference if somebody comes to you and says that they’re suffering.”