Liberty Bell student’s suicide prevention efforts spring from her own experiences
Isabel Salas radiates a grace and self-possession unusual in an 18-year-old.
But the Liberty Bell High School senior has lived through more than most her age. As Salas told a group of classmates and community members last week, two years ago she was so distraught that she tried to kill herself — twice.
“Attempting suicide wasn’t something I’d planned. In that moment, it was the only option I could think of,” said Salas. Since that bleak time, Salas has not only gained a powerful sense of purpose, but has also built a support network to make sure no one else feels that sense of hopelessness.
After focusing on her mental health and well-being, Salas knew she wanted to do something for her peers. In the fall of 2016, she started H.O.P.E.S. (Helping Our Peers End Suicide), which trains students to listen to their classmates, to ask the right questions, and to show they care. Students in H.O.P.E.S. work in pairs and know when to get more help from an adult.
Sharing her story
Last week Salas told her story to three-dozen community members and classmates at Liberty Bell.
As part of her senior project, Salas assembled a panel of experts — Twisp Police Chief Paul Budrow, Aero Methow Rescue Service EMT Autumn Leeman, and two counselors from Okanogan Behavioral Healthcare (OBHC) — to provide perspective on the issue. She also shared her own research about suicide and mental health.
Salas was extraordinarily poised and candid. Two years ago she was depressed and abusing alcohol, she said. She hated her home life and wanted to be on her own. “I didn’t care about losing all the things that were deeply important. I felt I was invincible,” said Salas.
On July 29, 2016, she took a handful of Naproxen. A friend called 911.
In the immediate aftermath of her suicide attempt, Salas received crucial support from Aero Methow and the Twisp police. “They made me understand these feelings are normal and that a lot of people feel this way,” Salas told the group.
But what didn’t seem normal to her was how common an emotional crisis like hers can be. Even in her distress, Salas was struck by a conversation she overheard between the first responders — hers was the sixth suicide attempt they had responded to that week.
That alarming statistic stuck with her. Once she was healthy, Salas made it her mission to reduce that number. She knew she wanted to start a peer-to-peer support group at the school and approached school counselor Amy Knob.
The idea dovetailed with Knob’s own interest in starting a peer suicide-support group, and they worked together to build the program. “I give all the credit to Isabel for getting this started,” said Knob.
Now in its second year, H.O.P.E.S. has trained 50 Liberty Bell students from grades seven through 12. Being young can be an advantage, since Salas and her peers have a vivid sense of what it’s like to go through puberty — the changes and confusion, and the sense of not knowing where to turn.
Although it was hard at first, once she was stable Salas found herself wanting to talk about her experiences. “It was important to do something for kids and adults. My purpose was to start somewhere,” she said.
Salas was fortunate to get excellent therapeutic care. After a two-week stay in an inpatient facility, she received counseling and medication for a year. “I’m on my own mentally now,” she said. “I have H.O.P.E.S. to look forward to, and lots of support in the Methow Valley.”
Salas will be interacting with that supportive community in May, when she will reign as the Junior Royalty Queen for Winthrop’s annual ’49er Days celebration.
The reaction of Salas’ family to her crisis was not atypical. Her mother told the group that when her daughter said she wanted to kill herself, she dismissed it as typical teenage behavior. Since then, she said she’s learned a great deal and is still processing the experience.
That experience — understanding that parents and family may not comprehend what a kid is going through — is part of Salas’ reason for launching H.O.P.E.S.
“It’s important for students to know that they can talk to another student instead of an adult,” said Knob. “Multiple things can happen that can land somebody in this dark place and make them think there’s no way out.”
“When I look back at myself, I realize I didn’t want to kill myself. I just wanted a way out and didn’t know there were resources,” said Salas.
H.O.P.E.S. received initial training from the Forefront suicide-prevention program at the University of Washington and then taught all the students at Liberty Bell during their advisory classes. The trainings spread awareness about suicide and focus on prevention — including information about dealing with stress, warning signs, and where to get help.
“We want people to know that it’s a normal feeling and is not wrong. A lot of people have bumps in the road, and some feel it more than others,” said Salas.
This February, H.O.P.E.S. expanded, training students from Brewster, Bridgeport and Chelan high schools to start their own support groups. “It was just great to see all the students working together, and the energy and excitement,” said Knob.
Salas’ experience — with her own crisis and the power of helping others — has inspired her to become a social worker (leaving behind a life-long desire to be a veterinarian). “My whole purpose of life is giving back. I really enjoy it, and others enjoy being a part of something good,” she said.
She’s focusing on building an infrastructure so that H.O.P.E.S. will continue after she graduates. “I want to pass on the help I receive. It’s like a chain reaction. I hope the people I help will pass it down, too,” said Salas.
“She’s taken a hard time in her life and turned it around, and built something at the school she can leave behind,” said Knob.
In addition to H.O.P.E.S., there is a valley-wide team with members from Aero Methow, law enforcement, Room One and the Lookout Coalition who respond in a mental-health crisis and provide ongoing suicide prevention and awareness.
People who attended Salas’ presentation were inspired by her message and want to educate more people in the community to identify warning signs and be ready to support others.
OBHC staff hope to offer a training in the valley in mental health first aid, which trains ordinary people to recognize signs of schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicidal ideation, said Danielle Shawgo, clinical director at OBHC. The eight-hour training is geared toward anyone — a teacher, a clerk in a convenience store, or a neighbor — who might encounter people struggling with these issues. It gives them skills in communication, in triaging a situation, and in getting appropriate resources for someone in need, said Shawgo.
These trainings encourage people to feel comfortable in asking if someone is OK. It helps to simply make eye contact, say hello, and start a general conversation, said Shawgo. “You never know when you might need that level of guidance and support. It removes the stigma,” she said.
For immediate response: 911
OBHC crisis line: (509) 826-6191, 24 hours a day
Room One: 997-2050
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)