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Published March 17, 2020

THE VIEW FROM MY SEAT

S.T.O.P event to help prevent suicides, increase anti-bullying awareness

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

It’s not often that you can attend a concert and possibly save a life.

But you will get a chance when Austin Lanier is featured at a fundraiser for S.TO.P, a non-profit organization in Brazoria County dedicated to suicide prevention and anti-bullying awareness.

The concert was originally planned for March 20, but it was postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak. A new date has not been determined.

Lanier is a Houston hip-hop artist, motivational speaker and S.TO.P member. He’s got songs to sing and a story to tell.

Lanier knows the struggles many young people face because he confronted many of them himself. Drugs. Alcohol. Death of a loved one.

As a high school senior, he thought about taking his own life.

He turned his life around and now shares his experiences with young people and their families in hopes of saving lives. He wants teenagers to know that they are not alone and that help is available.

“He is able to connect with teenagers,” said Sgt. Shane Michael Vandergrifft, a member of the S.TO.P governing board and supervisor of mental health deputies in the sheriff’s department.

“You should see some of the messages he gets after he speaks,” says Vandergrifft. “They reach out to him.”

You never know. The words you hear from Lanier may someday help you recognize suicide warning signs in a friend or family member. Maybe, even yourself. And you will learn that it is possible to replace desperation with hope.

Brazoria County’s suicide rate is alarming.

Our county is ranked as having the third-highest suicide rate in the state. And Texas has a suicide rate higher than the nation as a whole.
Nationwide, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than 22 percent of girls surveyed in 2017 reported they had considered killing themselves. This compares to 12 percent of the boys. Boys, however, are more likely to actually commit suicide.
The survey also found that 47 percent of gay, lesbian and bisexual students had considered suicide.

Alarmed by the suicides of young people, including three suicide attempts by children in one week, Freeport’s Brenda George in 2018 founded S.TO.P, an acronym for Stop. Talk. Overcome Pain.

George says S.TO.P came to her during a prayer session.

In the past, attempts to reduce teen suicides were done in small groups and it was considered risky to use the term suicide during the sessions.

S.TO.P employs a bolder approach. The organization collaborates with more than 35 local agencies to host youth rallies and school assemblies where teenagers struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide are encouraged to seek help.

“You can’t tackle the problem without first losing the fear of using the word ‘suicide,’” says Vandergrifft, who bears a scar where he once cut himself.

George, a retired nurse who now serves as S.TO.P’s CEO and president, says the organization has appeared before 15,000 students in 23 assemblies in the past year.

Students hear speakers tell of their personal struggles. School staff and volunteers observe the crowd looking for students who might want help from counselors.

On average, about 55 students reach out for assistance after an assembly. They often seek counseling for dealing with stress, troubles at home, bullying, and other mental health issues.

The program also offers follow-up training and counseling services so teachers can learn to identify warning signs.

Vandergrifft says statistics indicate the approach is working. His office is handling more mental health calls – a sign the message is getting out – and suicides in the county dropped from 42 in 2018 to 27 in 2019.

One of S.TO.P’s assembly speakers is Lake Jackson Mayor Bob Sipple, whose son killed himself 15 years ago at age 41.

At first, he was reluctant to talk about his son’s death. Now he thinks it is what his son would want.

“I think I have something to say,” the mayor explains.

He tells students that there is always someone who will listen to them and advises parents to create an atmosphere where children will come forward with their problems. “Don’t take anything lightly,” he warns.

When it is rescheduled, S.TO.P will use money raised from the concert to fund more assemblies.

Those attending the concert will also get a bracelet with the words “HOME to 741741” on it. That’s the way to text a crisis counselor. The bracelet serves as a reminder that help is always available.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)