The mission of Semicolon is to elicit stories of courage as teens confront and stand up to suicide and related issues: depression, addiction, violence, unresolved grief, bullying, abuse, fractured family relationships and other obstacles. In addition to dialogues prompted by open-ended questioning, group members engage in games and art projects designed to elicit tales of grief and loss as well as uncover strengths, such as courage and resiliency. Members often share their own artistic pursuits, such as music and poetry, as a way of revealing to others, and perhaps to themselves, their own inner strength and beauty.
The genesis of Semicolon began as I heard more and more heroic tales of young people standing up to the oppressive force of suicide during family therapy sessions at the Sky Center. Family members were often hearing these painful stories for the first time, because suicide’s primary modus operandi is to trick people into thinking that they are better off keeping suicidal thoughts to themselves. I started thinking out loud: How wonderful it is that family members are becoming familiar with the inner strength possessed by these teens, and how much better it would be if these revolutionaries got to know other peers’ stories of survival and redemption!
It is extremely helpful to have young people articulate their stories of success, because it further supports their healing path and allows them to redefine themselves by their strengths. My vision of story-swapping was realized when Kristin Carmichael, the director of community health at Christus St. Vincent, suggested that I build on the longstanding partnership between the Sky Center and Gerard’s House by co-facilitating a group for these teens with Katrina.
What we know about suicide, and its frequent co-conspirators sadness and worry, is that this insidious force becomes more firmly situated the more it isolates the individual from others, especially friends and family. It’s as though the suicide feeds and grows as it convinces vulnerable individuals that loved ones would never understand or even care about their pain and suffering. Suicide tricks teens into believing that parents and siblings would not miss them should they decide to end their lives. Therefore, a primary objective of Semicolon is to dismantle isolation by promoting human connection and social support. Semicolon revolutionaries come to know that they are not alone and that hearts are open to listen to their stories as they make their way on their hero’s journey.
These are the five elements Katrina, Don, participating teens and I use to make a successful Semicolon group experience:
- Safety. The Gerard’s House setting, combined with the compassionate intention set forth by facilitators and participants, promotes the necessary requirement of safety that allows group members to share intimate and painful aspects of their lives.
- Peer support. Semicolon is not a traditional counseling group; rather, it is a group experience that relies on the sharing and support of friends and allies.
- Externalizing suicide. The approach taken by the facilitators is to externalize suicide. We do not want young people to feel that I = Suicide, that suicide is me or inside me. Semicolon facilitators use externalizing language like: “How have you been able to keep the suicide so far away this week?” Externalizing helps the teen begin to develop a more distant relationship with suicide and the accompanying depression, anxiety and anger that seek to control their lives.
- Grief and loss. Expressing grief and sadness goes a long way in revitalizing the individual. Aristotle was right when he talked about the positive effects of catharsis in terms of purging, cleansing and purifying the soul of sad emotions as a prerequisite for renewal and restoration. Semicolon provides teens the opportunity to root out painful emotions associated with suicide as they begin to rewrite their own stories.
- Sharing what works. While processing grief and loss constitutes an imperative piece in challenging suicide, sharing successful encounters against this devious force is equally important. These success stories need to become embedded in the lives of these young people. Teens come to Semicolon at different stages in their battle with suicide. As such, it is encouraging to see those who are further down the road on their hero’s journey encourage those who have yet to create significant distance between themselves and suicide. Semicolon members who are in the early stages of battle find comfort that their peers have found ways to successfully stand up to suicide.
Semicolon has been an extremely rewarding experience for Katrina, Don and me. We have witnessed young people who had previously locked up painful emotions gradually transform their lives through openhearted dialogue. The Semicolon experience has paved the way for young lives to become reinvigorated. Hearts that were once closed are being filled with hope for the future. These courageous revolutionaries now recognize that their journey is marked by a semicolon; that, indeed, an infinite set of hopeful possibilities means that their sentence is not over.
Bob Kristy is a staff therapist at the Sky Family Counseling and Training Center.
Gerard’s House: A safe place for grieving children, teenagers and families, where healing happens through acceptance and peer support. All services are offered free of charge. Along with serving children and youth ages 3 to 21 who are grieving the death of a close relative or friend, Gerard’s House also provides support for youth coping with other types of loss. See more, including a short video, at www.gerardshouse.org. (505) 424-1800.
Semicolon: Meets Fridays from 5:15 to 6:30 p.m. at Gerard’s House, 3204 Mercantile Court, Suite C, in Santa Fe. To register, contact Bob Kristy at (505) 699-0605 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Services are free of charge.
Sky Family Counseling and Training Center: Free counseling services for families with children birth to 21, dealing with school struggles, peer problems, bullying, family conflict, relationship changes or losses, depression, mood swings, isolation, suicidal behavior, self-harm or other high-risk behavior, and increased substance use. Also provides school-based groups for youth referred by school counselors. Learn more at nmsip.org/services/sky-center/. Call (505) 473-6191 (office) or 424-1800 (mobile).