(BDN) — Julia Hansen, 16, has lost two close friends to suicide since the start of her sophomore year just nine months ago.
As a teenager battling depression in her own right, Hansen described her own life over that time as being an emotional rollercoaster, taking her from a shocked numbness through bouts of screaming.
Now she wants to make a difference in the lives of peers who may be experiencing the darkness that consumed her friends. This month, she launched what she’s calling The Yellow Tulip Project, in which she hopes to plant “hope gardens” of yellow tulips to “bring little doses of joy and happiness to people.”
The choice of flower is symbolic. Tulips were the favorite flower of one of Hansen’s lost friends, while yellow was the favorite color of the other. She hopes the gardens serve two purposes: to raise awareness of those battling depression and other mental illnesses, and to serve as a visual reminder to those who are that people care.
“I realize for some people there are times when it seems like there’s no hope out there,” Hansen said. “It means the world to me when someone asks the simple question, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ or ‘Is anything wrong?’ I feel very isolated when I am in a dark place, so knowing that someone is looking out for me is extremely important.”
According to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, suicide is the second leading cause of death in the state among people between the ages of 15 and 34, and that for every homicide in the state, nearly seven people die by suicide.
In addition to Hansen’s Waynflete School in Portland, Greely High School in Cumberland and Falmouth High School have also recently experienced the loss of students through suicide.
According to The American Association of Suicidology, Maine’s overall suicide rate is 16.5 per 100,000 residents, compared with the national average of 13.4, and warning signs that someone might be considering killing him- or herself include substance abuse, withdrawal, recklessness and dramatic mood changes, among other indicators.
More than 90 percent of those who die by suicide are battling some form of mental illness, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, substance use disorder, anxiety disorders or depression, among others, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
“Depression itself drives people to act alone. People become isolated and stuck in their own thinking,” Steve Addario, director of crisis intervention services at The Opportunity Alliance told The Forecaster. “The solution is to build connections, and break isolation so those depressive thoughts can be set aside.”
That’s what Hansen wants to do.
“Simple acts of kindness do mean a lot to people,” she said.
At a community level, Hansen said she hopes the flowers remind people to ask that extra question of someone who’s showing warning signs, and that they remind people who are battling depression that there are others who care about them.
“I think it can be hard for people to ask about [whether someone is having suicidal thoughts], because people can feel like they’re intruding in someone else’s business,” she said. “But you should always ask if they’re OK or if there’s anything you can do for them.”
Hansen said that although she’s never considered suicide herself, seeking counseling for her depression has made a difference in her life.
“Now I’m realizing how many people care about me,” she said. “I’m not ashamed to say that. I think the first step is being able to say it out loud, and I think smashing the stigma is a part of this.”
Maine Crisis Hotline, 1-888-568-1112: A 24 hour hotline to access crisis services for a range of behavioral health crisis situations including suicide assessment and intervention help. Calls are answered by trained behavioral health clinicians located in the crisis service center closest to the caller’s location.
Maine Warm Line, 1-866-771-9276: This is a peer staffed Intentional Warm Line operated 24 hours a day and offering telephone support for adults in non-crisis situations. Connect with trained peers who have experienced mental illness and recovery.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255): A 24-hour hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. Home of the Veterans Crisis Line as well; press “1” for veterans.