Ryan Ishbia and Josh Cooper, both 17
Ryan Ishbia and Josh Cooper, both 17

Inspired to continue the healing process after three classmates and one teacher committed suicide last year, West Bloomfield High School seniors Ryan Ishbia, 17, and Josh Cooper, 17, with the guidance of teachers, administrators and Rabbi Yarden Blumstein of the Friendship Circle, planned “U-Matter,” a weeklong program aimed at bringing attention to mental health issues and suicide prevention Nov. 14-18.

The week included art and essay writing contests and special guest speakers. The highlight of the week was a day of assemblies for all students. In shifts, teachers prepared “Ted Talk”-style lectures complete with PowerPoint presentations and uplifting videos to accompany their talks that were given to the entire student body of 1,700 students.

Some shared personal experiences of how they dealt with hard times such as failure or losing a loved one to cancer. Others created lessons and participatory exercises that centered on proven scientific studies of the beneficial powers of laughter or paying someone a compliment.

WBHS Head Counselor Mara Hoffert said the week’s activities centered around the celebration of life.

“We wanted our students to come away from this week with a positive outlook. Life matters. Through this program, we wanted to make sure that students understand that many of us struggle with stress and anxiety, and there are caring teachers and counselors right here to help out.”

The boys, who both have leadership roles in BBYO, this year enrolled in safeTALK training, a suicide prevention certification course taught by Blumstein and offered by the Friendship Circle to teens age 16 and up and those in the community who work with youth. All Teen Network Weavers — Jewish professionals who work across the Detroit Metro area’s Jewish youth groups — received safeTALK certification.

Motivated by this training, Cooper and Ishbia hoped “U-Matter” would not only be implemented at their high school but also duplicate itself in a “domino effect” of similar programming in high schools across the area.

“We wanted to create a feeling that shows how proud we are to be Lakers,” Cooper said. “Everyone matters. Everyone has the power to either negatively or positively impact someone else’s life, so why not think of it as what you say can change a person’s day for the better.”

In the hallways, one could feel this was a special week. Everyone, including the security guard signing in guests at the front desk, made a point to warmly greet each other with a caring, “You matter.”

“After last year’s tragedies at our school, Josh and I wanted to do something to raise morale and bring everyone together,” Ishbia said. “Within my Jewish community, I have come to appreciate the strong, secure sense of belonging that is very supportive. I wanted to bring this same supportive feeling to my larger high school community.”

During the week, Cooper said he got lots of positive feedback from his classmates.

“Students told me they got a great sense of comfort from the program,” Cooper said. “They were reassured to see that on the stage were not outsiders but teachers they see every day and teachers who will be around in the building whenever a time may come up when they have problems. The students now know they can come to them to talk.”

The week concluded with a safeTALK introduction where students were given an overview of the warning signs of suicide. As a follow up, teachers will choose between 30-72 students to take the three-hour certification course.

In his wallet, Ishbia keeps a small information card he received from safeTALK. On it contain the signals or “invitations” that a suicidal person may give to a friend in hope of getting their attention.

“We were taught that a suicidal person does not really want to go through with the act of taking his own life,” Ishbia said. “But the warning signs, like sudden drug or alcohol abuse, moodiness or out-of-the-ordinary withdrawn behavior, really serve as invitations the person may be giving out to get help.”

By Stacy Gittleman | Contributing Writer

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