Last summer, Garden City Community College sophomore Jailene Mendoza texted the college’s Student Government Association’s group chat, suggesting the group do what they could to save local lives from suicide.

In 2018, seven teenagers were lost to suicide in Ford County and Dodge City. Four of them were Mendoza’s friends.

“My friends, they didn’t look like people who would…” Mendoza said, trailing off. “A lot of times, it’s people you wouldn’t expect it from.”

The association latched onto the idea quickly, said SGA advisor Lauren Rockhold, pulling together to host one of several area suicide awareness events in honor of World Suicide Prevention Day on Monday.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, based on 2016 data, Kansas ranks 15th in the nation for suicide. And according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the state has experienced a 45 percent increase in suicides from 1999 to 2016, the fifth largest increase for the time period in the country.

Regional suicide numbers also seen a recent rise, said Callie Dyer, LiveWell Finney County Health Coalition executive director.

With a candlelight vigil in Lakin and calls for support at GCCC and Garden City High School, southwest Kansans stepped forward Monday to make one message known: No one is alone in struggle.

Garden City schools’ support

Handmade signs greeted GCCC students on all corners of the campus.

“When you need a friend … turn to GCCC SGA to be there,” one read, underlined by yellow hearts.

“The world needs you,” urged another.

At the college’s center, SGA members handed out buttons with encouraging words and fliers with suicide warning signs and treatment plans and sold T-shirts to benefit the Southwest Kansas Suicide Awareness Alliance.

Students posted sticky notes with kind words under a sign that asked passers-by to “Take What You Need, Give What You Can.” The GCCC art club offered temporary semicolon tattoos, which, taking up the symbol of national suicide prevention organization Project Semicolon, pushed individuals to continue a sentence, or life, rather than end it.

Suicide seemed to be something no one wanted to talk about, Mendoza said. People were afraid or didn’t know where to seek help. On a college campus, especially, where people may be homesick or feel alone, the SGA wanted to show that there was support, she said.

Several students stopped throughout the morning to speak with SGA members. One student said he felt isolated and had a hard time fitting in because he wasn’t from the United States, that friends at home had committed suicide, that he had no one, said SGA member Emily Robles. She said members told him he could talk to SGA members whenever he needed to, and walked him through campus resources.

But even when they were able to help, nearby and recent suicides, including one recently by a Garden City High School student, left an impact.

“I feel like when kids are upset, they don’t know how to reach out to adults or friends or tell them that ‘Hey this is what’s going on,’ because they’re too embarrassed or they’re too ashamed that they’re feeling that way…” Robles said. “I feel like if (the GCHS student) would have had someone to talk to or if this event would have happened earlier, then we could have reached out to him.”

Like Mendoza, the subject hit hard for several involved. Rockhold had lost a close cousin to suicide. One of SGA President Clara Jackson’s best friends had attempted suicide. Tessa Romero-Blood, who the SGA called in to help support the cause, attempted suicide when she was 19 and 21 and lost her brother to suicide in 2013.

The sidewalk surrounding the SGA’s setup was peppered with Romero-Blood’s large, colorful, chalked messages: “Stay Alive,” “It Gets Better,” “Keep Hope,” “You Are Loved.” The latter has been both her mantra and calling card since 2014, when she began chalking the phrase outside businesses or friends' houses around Garden City. A constant mission done in memory of her brother, the words have sent many a grateful text or message Romero-Blood’s way for years, she said. Soon, she was working with the Finney County Public Library to place cards with similar messages and the national suicide hotline in books for people to find.

For now, the chalked sentiments give people comfort, and Romero-Blood is glad to provide them.

“When people are sad, they’re not looking up. They’re not making eye contact … They’re looking down, and maybe they’ll see that and maybe it will help,” she said.

Across town, Romero-Blood’s words also popped on sidewalks at GCHS, kicking off the school’s weeklong “You Matter” campaign, headed by GCHS counselors. The week will include visits from Compass Behavioral Health and Genesis Family Health, informational signs from the LiveWell Finney County Health Coalition and other lessons breaking down student coping strategies, stress management and suicide prevention, said Roy Cessna, Garden City USD 457 public information officer.

The school dedicates a week to suicide prevention every year, said GCHS counselor Jennifer Meng, but the weight of the recent death added a harsher reality to the lessons they tried to impart to students. As the week moves forward and counselors, teachers and local organizations tell students they matter and their community cares for them, Meng said students and staff were just taking the year day by day.

“That was a huge impact on us all. It’s just a little more real for us this year than it ever has had to be. We’re just trying to really remain positive and let our students know that we’re here and that we care about them and they have people they can talk to,” Meng said.

Lakin’s local awareness

Nataly Ortiz was finishing nursing school in Dodge City when she heard about the area’s sudden trend of youth suicides. The stories behind the losses grabbed her attention, and she wanted to draw focus to a subject others seemed scared to talk about.

“Personally, I suffer from severe depression. So, I feel like I can understand it better because I know what it’s like to feel at your lowest..." Ortiz said. “I kind of wanted to start a trend into something that would make other people speak up.”

On Monday, Ortiz, a nurse at Kearny County Hospital in Lakin, and coworker Ashley Kramer, a certified nursing assistant, achieved Ortiz’s goal, hosting a community candlelight vigil in honor of those that lost their lives to suicide. They shared music and prayer, listened to the words of Cornerstone Church Pastor Hannah Richmeier and wrote positive messages in chalk along nearby sidewalks. In light of a Lakin teenager’s suicide in late August, people came together to heal a hurting community.

Southwest Kansas Suicide Awareness Alliance’s Michelle White, who lost her son to suicide in 2011, asked Ortiz several weeks ago to hold a vigil in Lakin for suicide victims. But Ortiz’s plans started much earlier.

Before even considering the vigil, Ortiz tried to spread awareness by selling T-shirts sporting the national suicide hotline and encouraging words. With the help of Pearl’s Sports Shop in Garden City, which provided the shirts at cost, she and Kramer began selling shirts in August, soon after hearing of the GCHS student’s suicide. Charging only enough to cover production, the movement would produce no profit, Ortiz said. The goal was to start a conversation about mental illness and to show widespread support for those struggling, she said.

Word spread on Facebook, through friends and word of mouth, and resulted in an overwhelming number of orders for the shirts, Ortiz said. Lakin residents, teachers from Lakin USD 215, Holcomb USD 363 and USD 457 called for them, as well as employees at Kearny County Hospital, St. Catherine Hospital and Compass Behavioral Health and other nearby community members reached out to her. In all, they asked for for nearly 1,000 shirts, Ortiz estimated.

The support was incredible, Ortiz said, but didn’t make the gravity of the subject any easier to parse. She was at Pearl’s when she received an order for shirts in memory of the local teen.

“It was very devastating … I told Daisy at Pearl’s ‘This is very heartbreaking because this is the exact thing we’re trying to prevent,’” Ortiz said.

When considering the outpouring from the community, Ortiz said she was left shocked and thankful. It was hard to know why the community came out in droves, she said. Recent tragedies had left the area raw, open to change and eager to help. But Ortiz said she felt the connection may be more personal.

“Personally, I feel like the majority of people who ordered a shirt are struggling in their own way. I feel like a lot of us like to cover up … Behind closed doors we’re battling a whole different world," she said. "Whether they want to show support, I know that most of them, within them, is because they’re dealing with it themselves. And that is a way of showing support to these people. They’re not alone. They’re not the only ones."

If you're struggling, please seek help. Compass Behavioral Health offers 24/7 crisis services, including care for those having suicidal thoughts. Residents can call the local office at (620) 276-7689 at any time and be connected with a mental health professional. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available for free at all hours at (800) 273-8255 (TALK).

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.