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Student shares emotional story at youth mental health summit

As appeared in Sunbury's The Daily Item
Written by Justin Strawser

LEWISBURG — Sienna Sosnoski, at age 15, lost her best friend to suicide.

The 2021 Southern Columbia Area graduate shared her story of recovery as the keynote speaker during the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit’s Youth Mental Health Summit on Wednesday at the Campus Theatre in Lewisburg. Sosnoski, now a third-year biology major at Penn State University, spoke with raw emotion and tears running down her cheeks.

“It was heartbreaking,” said Sosnoski to a crowd of more than 200 students, teachers, educators and community members. “It was honestly the hardest thing I ever went through. I never lost somebody that close to me before. I felt so gutted. My heart felt so empty in that moment. I had no idea how I was going to move forward with my life.”

In hindsight, Sosnoski said there were signs that her friend’s mental health was declining, but she didn’t know how to identify those red flags.

On March 5, 2019, the friend messaged Sosnoski with a suicide letter and took his life. He was 17.

Sosnoski criticized the response and lack of resources from the school district. A guidance counselor, she said, told her he didn’t know what to do in the situation.

“That was very disheartening to me because I didn’t know what I was going to do,” said Sosnoski. “I was supposed to trust these adults that were put into the school to help me, and they didn’t know how to help me. It made me feel very isolated.”

Peer support

Sosnoski said she found healing in peer support. She joined SPARK (Spreading Positivity and Random Kindness) and SAVE (Students Against Violence Everywhere) clubs, started volunteering, and organized events to honor her friend and spread awareness about suicide.

“I decided early on that I wasn’t going to let grief consume me,” said Sosnoski. “I knew there were two ways I could go. I could either become a shell of my former self and let the grief be who I was, or I could overcome that and help other people and make sure people didn’t have to experience what I experienced.”

Sosnoski said she gets together with friends every March 5 to drink Shamrock Shakes, one of her late friend’s favorite drinks.

“We just sit there and grieve and allow ourselves to be vulnerable with each other, and it’s just an amazing thing that I’m glad I’m able to have, to have these people who understand what I’m going through,” she said.

Sosnoski’s wishes

Sosnoski said she wishes schools had prevention training to teach students to be able to identify signs of suicidal behavior and how to help. She encourages schools to create spaces for students to feel comfortable and safe to grieve, to provide resources to understand their emotions, to take reports of declining mental health seriously and to facilitate a healthy conversation about youth mental health.

Her friend “stopped living, but I didn’t,” said Sosnoski. “I want to live every day for him, and be a better person for him, and make the change that he needed to have.”

Teen interns

The CSIU’s Project AWARE IMPACT (Improving Mental Health Practices Across Communities Together) youth mental health interns: homeschool junior Ruth Kraus, 16, of Lewisburg, and Central Columbia senior Eli Seesholtz, 18, of Bloomsburg, helped organize the event.

“We wanted to host this event so you could learn about the resources that me and Ruth really weren’t aware of,” said Seesholtz.

Kraus said the event gives her fellow teens a platform to talk about mental health and know they’re not alone in their struggles. The goals are to bring awareness to schools and community, gain hope and give a voice to students.

“Many school administrators and leaders think talking about teen mental health is too controversial and it’s something that should be kept to yourself,” said Kraus. “It’s not taken as seriously as it needs to be. All it accomplishes is discouraging people from going to these resources they have in school.”

Sharing personal stories is “really scary,” she said.

“The more you have these open and authentic conversations, the more we can help one another,” said Kraus. “We can destigmatize and better understand mental health as a whole. We can inspire each other, use our voice, share our stories, and make changes in our schools and the world now.”

Grant funding

The Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit was awarded a $3.5 million grant in 2022 to address the increasing needs of student mental health in its five-county service region. The grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is for over four years. Through the work of Project AWARE IMPACT, CSIU has partnered with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, The McDowell Institute at Bloomsburg’s campus of Commonwealth University, Geisinger’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health (the largest sub-grantee), and community resource agencies to create sustainable infrastructures of support to address the growing mental health needs of students and staffing shortages in school-based mental health.

Wednesday’s event was designed to be all about students, said CSIU Chief Outreach Officer Dr. Bernadette Boerckel, the facilitator of the Mental Health and Resiliency Community of Practice.

“Today is about you,” Boerckel said to students in attendance. “It’s about your experiences, your strengths, your challenges, told in your voice. The entire day has been planned and prepared by Eli and Ruth to make sure this is authentically your day.”

Boerckel encouraged the teachers, educators and adult support systems to listen with “open minds, open ears and open hearts.”

“This is going to be harder for us this year,” Boerckel said. “We’re hearing from our youth some of the places where we’re doing really well and some of the places where we might be letting them down, and where our systems could use some work.”

The summit also had a professional panel, information sessions and a resource fair.