Teen suicide: Aevidum gaining momentum

By on April 16, 2014



Aevidum members (left to right) Emily Steffy, Emma Gerhart, Samantna Marino (Cocalico juniors) and J.J. Volupas and Erik Homberger (Warwick juniors).

Aevidum members (left to right) Emily Steffy, Emma Gerhart, Samantna Marino (Cocalico juniors) and J.J. Volupas and Erik Homberger (Warwick juniors). (Photo by Michele Walter Fry)

Students from six area high school students, including Warwick, have gone national with a breakthrough club dedicated to the prevention of teen suicide. They met April 5 at Cocalico High School for a five-hour rally.

This all started after Phil Cardin, a Cocalico sophomore, committed suicide in 2004. A few persistent kids were ready to climb over a bleacher of silence which the topic of suicide is known for creating. They didn’t want to hush in the hallways about what happened, hold their breath or cross their fingers hoping another friend wouldn’t do the same as Phil. Students wanted to talk about it.

And they were allowed. They also wanted to do something about it, teen to teen, and not wait for an assembly or adult lecture on the topic.

“When the kids said they wanted to start a club,” said Mary Beth Cardin, Phil’s mom, “I said, ‘A suicide club? That sounds weird. That doesn’t sound like a right thing to do.’ Initially, that was the reaction of people.”

The club became Aevidum.

“At the time, no school in the nation was having students talk about these issues even though every expert said kids need to talk about this,” said Joe Vulopas, Cocalico teacher, Lititz resident and executive director of Aevidum. “People at the time were concerned if you talked about it, a student was going to do it, and that’s absurd. A student hearing about it in school is not going to run home and do something like that. It was a long time of misinformation.”

Mental health professionals agree that depressed teens who isolate themselves and don’t talk about it are at a higher risk of committing suicide, which is why schools are now embracing and supporting the Aevidum concept.

“We need to prevent this by talking about things before it happens, not be reactive. After a death, everyone talks about it. We need to be talking about it before,” continued Vulopas. “Suicide is the third leading cause of death in young people and yet people weren’t talking about it, but in almost every single case it can be prevented if you know the signs. They have to get treated fast enough. In college it’s the second leading cause of death. It’s unbelievable.”

Aevidum, a made-up name with Latin roots, was started by eight Cocalico students in 2004 and has launched in other schools including Warwick and Ephrata.

“The main goal of Aevidum is to let others know that they are important and that they matter and that we are here for them, said Kylee Kidwell, a Cocalico junior. “Aevidum, meaning ‘I’ve got your back,’ means that we’re able to support others even though we may not be able to give that help ourselves, we can get them help and let them know they should not be ashamed.”

Some might argue that these teens are not equipped, qualified or emotionally mature enough to handle this level of responsibility in their own journey through teen years.

“This is very important. We are not mental health experts,” said J.J. Vulopas, an officer at the Warwick Aevidum chapter and son of the executive director. “Aevidum is about recognizing that, hey, depression is an illness. There are warning signs and there are places that you need to go for help. If you see something that’s iffy with your friend or something off, you need to get them in touch with someone who can help them &tstr; a guidance counselor, school nurse or adult.”

“The student’s job is not to help them become happy again,” added Erik Homberger, a student at Warwick and officer in their chapter.

“All the counselors and teachers at our school have great connections,” said Kidwell. “With the great teachers and support that we do have, we are able to get that help and there are so many businesses and counseling services that know about Aevidum, so everyone is connected.”

What started with one tragedy has vaulted Cocalico to head the top student empowerment organization across the nation. They won the activity of the year award from SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) where 10,000 schools participated. National news started covering them and they even took their message to Good Morning America.

They’re starting the message in earlier grades now. In Hempfield School District, they’re starting Aevidum in kindergarten.

“Warwick has definitely embraced the Aevidum philosophy,” said J.J. Vulopas. “I’ll see the principal and all the assistant principals in the hallway and they wave at me and I’ll see the Aevidum wrist band on their arm and that’s something that’s really encouraging to me.”

Besides teaching kids of the warning signs of depression and suicide and guiding friends to help, they do activities and acts of kindness which is what helps “cultivate a culture of care.”

“One of my favorite things we did was we met over the summer before the first day of school,” J.J. continued. “We wrote the name of every single student in the school, all 1,500 on little cardboard hands in yellow and then we hung those hands up all over the hallways and they lined the entire school. When people came the first day of school, they could look up and see their name.

“We understand that one of the most important things about having a healthy, safe learning environment is feeling like you belong. And walking in on the first day of school if you’re a nervous freshman and you see your name up there, there’s nothing more powerful than that.”

A side bonus from Aevidum is kids are given the opportunity to be encouraging leaders.

“Joe (Vulopas) is wonderful at encouraging and bringing out gifts the kids don’t even realize they have,” said Cardin. “Seeing how kids grow besides the advocacy work is amazing. My daughter spoke about it for the first time publicly at an assembly at Hempfield High School. When it’s something that’s touched you personally, it’s hard to stand up there. I couldn’t do it.

“She does it because she doesn’t want someone else up there talking about their sibling or loved one in a past tense. But when she did that, she got home and got an email from someone and it said, ‘You saved my life.’ Those four words could get her to stand on a stage for the rest of her life.”

At the April 5 rally, kids broke into groups for activities, ate pizza, discussed future events and rocked to a long-time Aevidum band, Innocence Abide.

“Our main goal today is to join all the schools together and unify everyone so that Aevidum isn’t just Cocalico, but all schools and we all have the same information to give,” said Brooke Fritz, a Cocalico junior.

What is in the near future for our local Aevidum chapters?

“It’s called ‘The Talk.’ We’re going in vans to every single high school across Lancaster and Lebanon and have ‘The Talk,’” said Joe Vulopas. “Every student is going to receive an Aevidum wristband which has the suicide hotline (1-800-273-8255) on the back.”

“It’s not just throwing out bracelets. Every single high school student will get ‘The Talk’ and be personally handed an Aevidum band,” said Vulopas.

While Aevidum shatters the shame associated with depression and suicide, they also make it clear that depression is a mental illness which is preventable when the signs are seen and help is caught early.

“I try not to talk about my son because it’s really not about my son now,” said Cardin. “It’s about everyone else’s. For mine it’s too late, but for yours there’s still hope.”

Michele Walter Fry is a freelance writer for the Record Express. She welcomes your comments at michelewalterfry@gmail.com.

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