May is National Mental Health Awareness Month.
In recognition, Jefferson-Morgan High School Student Council members have placed “Suicide Prevention Rocks” signs throughout the elementary and middle/high school campuses.
Scattered neatly around the signs are brightly painted rocks with uplifting messages like, “Yes you can,” “You are not alone,” and “Every pink flamingo starts out gray.”
Students are encouraged to take a rock, or to leave one.
For Jefferson-Morgan Elementary School teacher Anita Mullen, Mental Health Awareness month – and the rocks – have become personal.
In August 2019, Mullen’s 18-year-old son, Michael, died by suicide.
Michael had graduated from Jefferson-Morgan Senior High School in June, and had just started a job at a car dealership.
“My son’s suicide changed my life in a way I never imagined,” said Mullen.
Shortly after Michael died, high school business/computer teacher Jodi Fulks and Michael’s friends and teachers presented Mullen with painted rocks emblazoned with his favorite things – Pink Floyd and AC/DC, footballs and cars – and messages about him.
On one rock, a friend painted a Kennywood sign and sent a note describing how Michael gave money to a band student who didn’t have enough to buy a ticket for the band’s trip to the amusement park.
“That’s when the rocks started for me. It meant a lot to me to have those,” said Mullen, who laminated the rocks.
Since then, the school district and the community have continued to rally around Mullen and honor Michael, and the kindness rocks have become a symbolic way to let teens know they matter.
In recent months, Mullen, staff and students have built rock gardens at four locations – at the entrance of the district campus, the entrance of the elementary school, near the parking lot on the high school grounds, and in the serenity space at the high school courtyard.
In September, during National Suicide Awareness Month, Mullen organized a “Walk for Mullen” (friends affectionately called Michael by his last name) to raise awareness of suicide and to raise funds that were used to install a bench at the serenity space and pond.
Walkers were invited to paint rocks at the walk.
And a rock bearing Michael’s name was placed in the You Matter Serenity Garden in Washington, which was started as a Silver Award Project by Girl Scout Troop 52020 and includes a memorial garden for victims of suicide.
The school district plans to build rock gardens in Mather and Rice’s Landing. Ultimately, said Fulks, the students’ goal is to establish signs and rock spaces throughout Greene County.
“I like the idea of the rocks. I like the whole message of leaving one for someone, or picking one up if you need it or if you know someone who needs one. It can be an anchor for you, something to hold on to, carry with you, keep it to look at, especially if it has a good message that you connect with. It’s a nice way to spread kindness and love, and to let people know they matter,” said Mullen. “I think it’s important for us to understand that you don’t always know what people are going through. So just be kind to people. Kindness goes a long way.””
Michael played football and was a drummer in the high school band.
Mullen said her son loved sports, old cars, and ‘70s and ‘80s music, and loved wearing classic rock band T-shirts.
“He was so well-liked by a lot of people. He had a lot of friends and he would always take the time to help them out,” said Mullen. “I had somebody come up at his funeral, a kid he graduated with, who said she was bullied, and he stuck up for her and that it meant a lot to her. He was a good kid.”
Mullen said the family hadn’t noticed any warning signs that Michael was depressed, and they didn’t suspect how badly he was feeling.
“None of us really know the reason it happened,” said Mullen. “Over the past year and more, I’ve gone over it a lot of times thinking, is there more I could have done?”
Even before the pandemic, suicide was the second-leading cause of death among high school students, with the national suicide rate for people ages 10 to 24 increasing nearly 60% between 2007 and 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A 2019 study conducted by groups including the state Department of Education and the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency showed that 16.2% of youths surveyed reported seriously considering suicide within the past 12 months, and 9.7% attempted suicide, up from 7.6% in 2013.
In all, four teens from Greene County died by suicide in 2019 and 2020, according to the coroner’s office.
Washington County recorded five deaths from suicide among people aged 10 to 19 in the period from 2018 through 2019. In Fayette County, there were no deaths from suicide reported from 2018 through 2020.
As Mullen continues to grieve for her son, she wants to speak out to help other teens.
“I want to keep this from happening to any of the other kids in our community. I want them to know that their life matters and they matter to somebody. I don’t want another parent to feel the way I feel,” said Mullen. “I was always a very quiet person, and I still am, but before this I probably wouldn’t have spoken out for this. I would have supported efforts, but not as vocally. But since I’ve experienced it, it’s spurred me to want to do something. I want to honor my son’s memory.”
A community member donated – literally – a ton of rocks, and anyone interested in picking up rocks to paint for the rock spaces can do so.
“This has been a real collaboration between the school and the community,” said Fulks. “It’s our way of advocating for mental health and suicide awareness, and getting the message out there. It needs to be talked about.”
Mullen drives by the rock gardens every day.
“It really touches my heart every time I go past and see them. I’m thrilled with them,” said Mullen. “We’re going to try to keep this from happening again to anybody else.”
Mullen recently painted rocks for a milestone occasion. Students from the first pre-K class she taught at Jefferson-Morgan in 2007 are set to graduate on June 2.
She presented those eight students who are still in the district with encouraging rocks at a pre-K ceremony.
“Anytime we can tell kids how important they are, how much they matter, we need to do it,” said Mullen. “Everybody goes through things at some point in their life. Something like this can really make a difference. One positive message at just the right moment can change things.”
Anyone interested in painting a rock for the rock gardens can email Jodi Fulks at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The National Suicide Prevention hotline is 1-800-273-8225.