By Cecilia Chan
GSN Managing Editor
Gilbert teen Cassandra Brueck said her friend, whom she’s known since seventh grade, normally talked a lot and was the one who would keep the conversation going.
But one day before winter break last year during a field trip, Cassandra noticed she was withdrawn and didn’t want to sit with anyone on the bus.
“She was very distant and on the phone a lot,” said Cassandra, a 15-year-old freshman at Gilbert Classical Academy. “When I went home and was on a brief chat with her, she said she didn’t want to live anymore and it seemed like it was pretty serious.”
Cassandra took action to save her friend and was recognized for her effort.
She is the 2019 youth recipient of Mercy Care’s annual Resilience, Innovation, Service and Empowerment award. The RISE Award recognizes and celebrates inspiring people working to improve their community through leadership, advocacy, health and wellness.
Since July 2017, 33 youths have taken their lives in Queen Creek, Chandler, Mesa and Gilbert. Five other teens in nearby communities also died by suicide.
The number of youths 18 and younger going to emergency rooms for suicide attempts or thinking about suicide in the country has doubled between 2007 and 2015, according to a study published earlier this year by JAMA Network, an international peer-reviewed general medical journal.
In the United States, suicide is a major public health concern and the second leading cause of death among youths age 10 to 18 years, persisting into early adulthood, the study said. It is also the second leading cause of death among juveniles in Arizona.
Cassandra said her friend had on occasions talked about not wanting to attend school the next day or that she was depressed. But that fateful day was the first she’s talked about suicide, Cassandra said.
“When she said that, I was also thinking how she was acting that day,” she said. “And things clicked and I thought, ‘I really need to help her.’”
Cassandra confided in her mother.
“She said, ‘Go talk to the counselor or call her dad or mom,’” Cassandra recalled. “Well, I felt like I should go to someone fast and didn’t have her parents’ number. I decided to go to the counselor.”
The next day, she and a classmate went to the school counselor.
“I was a little hesitant because I didn’t want her to be mad at me,” she said. “But I decided it was worth it if she lived.”
Her friend found out that Cassandra reported her to the counselor but eventually thanked her.
“She is now in counseling,” Cassandra said. “She is doing better and she is happy with her life.”
To this day, Cassandra still doesn’t know what pushed her friend to the edge.
“I think it was pressure but she hasn’t talked to me about it,” Cassandra said. “I don’t want to bring it up and make her sad again.”
Cassandra’s experience has prompted her to bring more awareness to this growing epidemic through participation in a PSA video and by writing columns, one was published in the Dec. 30, 2018, edition of the Gilbert Sun News.
She plans to volunteer with Teen Lifeline, a peer counseling crisis hotline for youth in Arizona and she also is working with a Gilbert Public Schools district counselor on developing a podcast on suicide prevention.
“Suicides have been really prevalent in the last few years,” Cassandra said. “And I don’t want anyone else to lose a friend like I almost did.”
Cassandra’s decision to help a friend in crisis and her subsequent efforts to try and prevent teen suicide got the attention of Peggy Chase, who nominated the youth for the RISE award.
“She is a very mature young lady and certainly has a sensitivity and heart for people,” said Chase, who is a neighbor and has known Cassandra since she was born.
Chase also is president and CEO of Terros Health. The nonprofit has been helping Arizonans with mental health and addiction challenges for 50 years and works with quite a few school districts on suicide prevention.
Chase said Cassandra has been sharing what she’s learned about suicide prevention from her visit to Terros Health and meeting with its crisis team.
“She’s sharing what she is learning and hoping to make a difference,” Chase said. “When we saw the RISE Award, we saw her as an excellent advocate for youth. There’s nothing more powerful than youth talking to youth.”
Chase added it was admirable that Cassandra, who was 14 at the time, decided to risk her friend’s anger in order to get her help.
“She went through a process and decided even if her friend was mad at her, it was worth it to save her life,” Chase said. “It was something that was hard to do. I think it was very brave. She set an excellent example for others.”