A transformative experience gripped San Clemente High School students this fall when Kristi Hugstad stood in front of them, relating how her husband had ended his life in 2012 – suicide by train.
The students in six ninth-grade health classes were riveted, learning how the Dana Point resident had managed to overcome her despair to become a grief counselor, public speaker and author.
Hugstad’s first book, “What I Wish I’d Known,” was the guide she had searched for but couldn’t find, she said, while struggling to process her husband’s death. It offers 10 tools she developed to help her through her “grief journey.”
She then offered a gift to each student in class: a copy of her new book, “R U OK? Teen Depression & Suicide,” which came out in April (Dog Ear Publishing).
It was theirs to keep, courtesy of an anonymous million-dollar donor in San Juan Capistrano whose family had been touched by teen depression and suicide, the second-leading cause of death among teens in the United States, according to Hugstad.
The donor, Hugstad said, was stirred by the book’s message and wanted it shared with as many people as possible to try to reduce teen suicide in Orange County and nationwide.
The $1 million donation allows 100,000 copies of “R U OK?” to be shipped to schools, youth organizations, recovery centers and hospitals. The book costs about $10 online.
“Most organizations don’t have the budget to afford this valuable resource,” Hugstad said. “My book includes discussion questions for teachers to use as a lesson plan and help start conversations about depression and suicide. I also send my ‘R U OK?’ PowerPoint presentation to help teachers communicate the information in my book.”
At San Clemente High School, teachers Angela Tisdale and John Dowell distributed books. In class, Hugstad discussed warning signs, and asked students with any concerns to talk to an adult they trust.
“About 10 students stayed after to speak with me,” she said. The teachers summoned Susan Parmalee, director of San Clemente High’s Wellness and Prevention Center.
“I was able to pass the baton,” Hugstad said. “I thought, this is helping save lives.”
A few words with the author about “R U OK?”
What is the premise?
To teach teens, parents, teachers and anyone working with youth how to identify the risk factors and warning signs of depression and suicide. I also include what to say, what not to say, suicide myths, what to do, where to go for help and a message of hope.
Why the title?
Asking these 3 simple words, “R U OK?” can save a life. It opens the door for someone to admit they’re not OK and get the help they need. If I’d had this information prior to my husband’s suicide, perhaps my story may have ended differently.
How do you convey the message?
It is written to teens and includes stories of local youth that struggle with issues such as cyber bullying, substance abuse, LGBTQ issues, physical and mental abuse, technology addiction, etc. I share the story of my husband’s depression and suicide and ask the readers to write down all the warning signs and risk factors as the story unfolds. This practical exercise gives teens the confidence to approach others that may need help, or recognize the need for themselves.
What role does social media play in teen depression and suicide?
Many teen suicide attempts are linked to social media’s influence. Today’s youth have the “Like” mentality and are easily influenced and affected by their popularity, or lack of it, in online social media sites. Cyber bullying, technology addiction and the isolation it brings will be a continuing significant factor in future suicides among the teen population and is a topic addressed by “R U OK?”
What do you tell families?
Depression is an illness, just like heart disease, cancer, etc. If a family member completed suicide, it was because of their brain disease. They were trying to escape their unimaginable emotional pain and not trying to hurt or punish them. Family members need to process all their feelings of guilt, anger, depression, fear and overwhelming grief, and understand that everyone grieves differently and in their own time frame. That needs to be honored, so family members remain united. A strong support system is crucial for their grief recovery.
Any local examples you can cite?
I worked with a mother whose son had completed suicide. She felt completely responsible, focused only on what she didn’t do. Once she began to process her grief and realize he had a disease and had been struggling with mental illness since childhood, she stopped taking responsibility for his death and in time began to move forward in her grief journey. Her grief changed her and she was able to morph and change with it, and learned that growth and suffering can and will co-exist in her heart.
What should parents tell their children?
Parents need to keep the lines of communication open. Saying things like, “I’m here for you whenever you need to talk,” (or) “There is nothing we can’t get through together.” Keep the conversation positive and offer support. Reprimanding and telling your teen to stop isolating, get off the computer; making comments like, “No one ever said life was fair, stop being so negative, and I had things a lot tougher than you,” only makes them feel worse and shows them you really don’t understand what they’re going through.
At what age should parents approach the subject?
Junior high is an appropriate age to start conversations about depression and suicide. I’m a credentialed health teacher and speak to local schools, mainly ninth-grade health students. Most of the teachers and counselors across the country requesting my book work with students in seventh- to ninth-grades.
Can you suggest a thought that teens might remind themselves daily?
You matter, and you alone are enough! You have power over how you react to people or situations. Don’t let anyone take your power from you. You don’t grow when things are easy. You grow when you face your challenges. Today I will focus on what I want, not what I fear. Today I will be stronger, braver, kinder and unstoppable!