South Salem High School students at a Saxon Strong club meeting on Dec. 6, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Ava Templeton knows how unhelpful well-intentioned friends and adults can be for teenagers struggling with depression.

The 17-year-old South Salem High School senior has had people offer unsolicited advice when she’s sought someone to listen and empathize with her.

“People are like telling you to try exercising to get your mood up,” she said. “I’d more so just want someone to be there for me.”

Templeton is among a trio of South Salem students who recently created a guide focused on mental health and suicide prevention for their peers.

The 35-page resource covers the basics of talking to someone who’s thinking about suicide, offering suggested questions to open up a dialogue and helping them create a safety plan. Those include validating their emotions rather than arguing with them, offering to support them and helping create a safety plan detailing people they'll contact if their mental health worsens.

The guide also includes responses from teenagers to a variety of questions describing their struggles with mental health, what helped and what didn’t.

“It’s become our number one resource on our website,” said Ryan Marshall, a counselor at South Salem High School. He said it’s thorough without being overwhelming and “better than anything we’ve ever been able to” make.

The project is part of Live to Tell, a suicide prevention nonprofit organization founded by South graduate Eric Martz in 2019 during his senior year.

The original group included students from high schools across the district.

Now, involvement has scaled back to several students at South, said senior Arnav Mohindra, the group’s current president. He’s working to rebuild membership at schools across the district after the pandemic disrupted operations and also left many students feeling more isolated and struggling.

“It’s been a pretty difficult year for students, especially coming back after such a long time,” Mohindra said of the guide.

Arnav Mohindra, 18, right, president of Live to Tell, and Madeline Jenkins, 16, at a Saxon Strong club meeting on Dec. 6, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Mohindra said the idea for the guide came when Martz was still running the group.

The current board members worked on it last school year, dividing up sections based on their interest and experience, and presented their work to school counselors toward the end of the year.

“As students we know what’s going to be the most helpful to us, resource-wise,” Mohindra said. He said a common problem he sees is that students aren’t aware of the resources available to them. The final section of the guide is a long list of options including research websites, crisis lines and help specifically for LGBTQ young people, who are particularly likely to attempt suicide.

Templeton, the Live to Tell treasurer, Mohindra and Henry Kanaskie, the group’s vice president, are also involved in Saxon Strong, a student club addressing mental health and providing peer input on many of the counseling office’s efforts.

“There’s often a connection gap between what adults think students need and what students actually need,” said senior Dara Elkanah, 17, at a meeting just before winter break.

Members of Saxon Strong worked with school counselors on a presentation given to freshman health classes at South about suicidal ideation.

They’re also working to outfit an unoccupied classroom in the school as a break room for students - a quiet place with comfortable furniture where students can decompress.

“Sometimes you don’t want to talk to anyone, you want to think through things,” said sophomore Rylee Jenkins, 15, a Saxon Strong member.

Students in the group said they’ve seen an increased awareness of and focus on student mental health since in-person classes resumed full-time this fall.

“There has been a level of improvement with that because everyone’s been up in the air and changing because of Covid,” Mohindra said. School and district administrators and counselors “want student input and they want to do what’s best for students … I think what we just need is impassioned students to come.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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