Barb O’Keefe believes there’s no age too young to start talking about suicide prevention.
O’Keefe works on behalf of Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program and travels to area organizations lecturing on how to best talk about and prevent suicide. She speaks to people of all ages and professions, but last Tuesday night at the Fort Calhoun Presbyterian Church she focused on addressing the sensitive topic to children.
“At the age of five, kids know the word suicide,” O’Keefe said. “They don’t know the seriousness of it or the finality of it, but they know the word.”
In her audience Tuesday night were dozens of area children, all of grade school age. Many of them sat at a u shaped table directly in front of O’Keefe. They listened impatiently as she began, with heels banging against chair legs.
“Have you guys been taught about suicide?” she asked. Maybe six or seven hands went up. “Ok, that’s good.”
For those whose hands had stayed down, O’Keefe explained the science of sadness and what could make someone want to take their life. Her explanations were basic but competent. She compared serotonin levels in the brain to gas in a car. When the gas runs low, the car has a hard time continuing on down the road. Same goes for serotonin and the brain. She said no matter how sad you feel, there's always help to be found.
“There’s a lifeline there for every single one of you,” she said.
O’Keefe moved on to talk about cyber bullying and how profoundly it has effected young people in recent years. She asked the kids how many of them had access to a cell phone and every hand in the room went up. O’keefe believes that’s what makes talking to children about suicide so important in today’s world.
“If they have access to any kind of social media, they know way more than I could tell them,” O’Keefe said.
“The problem is kids can’t get away from (bullying) today,” she said. “When I was young it didn’t follow you. Everything was more face-to-face and the next day you went to school and things were OK.”
As O’Keefe ended her speech she handed out Yellow Ribbon cards to everyone in the audience, young and old. The cards have a phone number to the national suicide hotline on them and O’Keefe said she wants to get the cards in as many hands as possible.
“This card could save your life,” she said.
It’s easy to see the passion in O’Keefe’s eyes when she says that. Her connection to suicide is personal. She’s a longtime member of the Ponca Hills Fire Department Auxiliary and said the department has been affected by suicide four times in the last decade. Most recently they lost fire fighter and Fort Calhoun graduate Will Hodges, who took his own life in September 2016.
That’s what spurred her interest in the Yellow Ribbon program and motivates her to give these talks. Her number one goal is getting her message out to as many people as possible, whether they’re eight or eighty.
“Anybody that’ll listen, we’ll talk,” she said.