Suzanne Whitaker, who has painted murals at several Kyrene school, including this one at Kyrene de la Mariposa, where she is talking with Principal Spencer Falgatter, is working with a Mountain Pointe teacher and a Corona del Sol student to use art as a way curbing teen suicides.
AFN file photo

Stung and alarmed by the rash of teen suicides in the East Valley – including a cluster of seven deaths in six weeks last summer – an Ahwatukee muralist has joined forces with a Mountain Pointe teacher and a Corona del Sol student to stem the tragic tide among young people, starting with students in the Tempe Union High School District.

Suzanne Whitaker is working with English teacher Lorie Warnock and accomplished 17-year-old performer Tatum Lynn Stolworthy to present a one-day retreat for teens, ages 14 to 18, that will use collaging and journal writing to help them through grief – especially the kind that might drive some young people to consider suicide.

Called Tools for Teen Grief, the workshop will run 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27, at the Escalante Center, 2150 E. Orange St., Tempe. Three or four teens will join four to six adults as facilitators for the session. Teens can sign up at signupgenius.com/go/8050849aeae2ca13-teen.

Whitaker said she’s been thinking about this idea for a while.

“I wanted to bring my art together with my volunteer work with New Song for Grieving Children – part of Hospice of the Valley – somehow,” she explained.

“I’ve worked with the teen group for four years now and enjoy watching the kids go from very sad to a place of strength at the end of a year or so,” Whitaker added. “Much of what we talk about in group is centered on ways in which we can relieve stress and overwhelming sadness or anger. If we can use these tools on a regular basis or when things are especially out of hand, it’s so useful. Even just learning to make deep breathing a habit is great.”

All three women have been touched by the deaths of teens close to them, two involving suicides.

Warnock lost her son in 2016. He was one of three Corona students who have taken their lives in the last three years – all classmates of Stolworthy, who started Aztec Strong, a support group with 300 teens who discuss their own issues and how to prevent teen suicide.

Whitaker said her sister died the summer before her senior year in high school, “and it changed everything for me.”

“In those days, where I lived, there was very little emphasis on therapy, meditation or yoga,” she recalled. “However, some students and I started a support group at our high school, and it was really beneficial to know others were going through the same waves of sadness from their loss. And then, Lorie, much to my surprise, said she’d been having similar thoughts about a workshop but wanted to incorporate yoga and meditation.”

Once they got to talking, Warnock and Whitaker brought in other moms.

“Our small group of moms formed for the purpose of bringing awareness to suicide prevention in Tempe Union School District and work toward concrete training for teachers and staff to recognize the signs. We’ve talked a lot about the stress our high school students are under and what we might be able to do to help. We call ourselves Parents for Suicide Prevention,” Whitaker said, adding:

“Lorie is driven to alleviate suffering for other families by educating the community regarding all the resources for emotional health and suicide prevention.”

The workshop aims to use yoga, art and writing “somehow for grief release – all kinds of grief, a chance to tell their stories,” Whitaker said.

Warnock used her Teacher of the Month award money from KTAR Radio to obtain a Tempe Vibrant city grant to fund the workshop.

Its purpose is spelled out succinctly in a flyer:

“Grief does not discriminate. Our teens are experiencing some form of grief regularly with little time or attention given to the importance of processing it in healthy ways. In addition, they are under immense pressure from social media, family and school. Many experience isolation and a lack of real connection to others as well as themselves, creating a negative and false narrative.”

The women note that grief can take all forms and involve a wide range of personal tragedies, from parents divorcing to bullying, losing a friendship to simple being ostracized from a peer group.

“This workshop will include a safe environment to focus on going within,” the flyer states. “Participants will hear teen speakers’ stories, be guided to create journal cover collages, produce their own stories of grief, take part in healthy discussions to process their feelings, and end with yoga as a calming tool – techniques they can use well after the workshop.”

The workshop is organized in a structured way so that participants can immediately begin bonding with each other, listen to teen speakers who have dealt grief, engage in intimate conversations about their feelings, start collaging or painting, start a journal and end up learning some basic yoga from Warnock.

And before the session ends, the participants will do one more thing aimed at helping them when life seems at its darkest – exchanging phone numbers so they can turn to someone with whom they already have shared some of their deepest feelings of grief.

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