Mental illness and suicide are rampant in Oregon, and its youths aren’t protected from either of them.
The Oregon Health Authority counts suicide as the second leading cause of death among Oregonians ages 15-34.
The OHA also states that through the Healthy Teen Survey, 16 percent of eighth- and 11th-graders reported as seriously considering suicide in 2015.
Programs like Youth ERA are trying to diminish those numbers.
Formerly Youth MOVE Oregon, Youth ERA provides drop-in centers, crisis response and a program called Youth Program Builder that works with organizations to develop and improve youth services in Oregon.
Youth ERA has created a safe environment for its youth to not only survive things like suicide and childhood trauma, but thrive and learn how to lead happy and successful lives.
Martin Rafferty, Youth ERA’s founder and chief of operations, said there was a single moment when being part of Youth ERA had changed his life — when an 18-year-old who had recently graduated high school came to their offices with the suicide note he’d written before he had met his peer support specialist.
“He was still in his graduation robe,” Rafferty said. “I realized that while we weren’t the only reason this youth had gotten better, we were one of the reasons why he was able to be there that day.”
Youth ERA provides services all throughout Oregon — including Coos Bay, Clackamas County and Medford — as well as across the U.S.
Eugene has its own drop-in site that is staffed by youth peer support specialists and is open to anyone ages 14 to 25. It features everything from computer labs, a sound booth to record in, help with building things like resumes and cover letters and space to study and get help with homework.
“Youth ERA serves youth and young adults, so many students who go to UO can utilize our services which are free,” said Gina Gervase, Youth ERA’s executive assistant. “I wish I had known about Youth ERA when I was a student — it would have been really helpful to be connected to a community where discussing mental health isn't taboo, it’s encouraged and normal.”
LaToya Howell, the drop-in services manager, said the drop-in center’s focus is on helping youth find their purpose, despite sometimes needing more space and staff in order to meet the community’s needs.
“The drop-in center’s main purpose is to increase youth's purpose, belonging and connectedness,” Howell said. “Those three things give youth the building blocks they need in their life to be successful. Our staff focuses on knocking down barriers so that our youth can focus on accomplishing their goals.”
Rafferty says that the Oregon counties that Youth ERA serves have their own cultures and challenges, but their youth face similar struggles.
“Youth across Oregon are all facing strikingly high rates of youth suicide, homelessness, anxiety and depression,” Rafferty said. “It’s the reason why we are able to replicate drop models across Oregon and the United States.”
According to Youth ERA’s website, the organization has provided services to 8,750 youth and have trained peer support specialists in 39 states.
All of their peer support specialists are trained to help youth with trainings through ASIST, or Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training and one-on-one peer support from those who have been in similar situations.
“We focus on suicide prevention and trauma because those are the struggles we as members of this organization have faced,” Rafferty said. “Lived experience isn’t a talking point for us, it’s what drives every choice, big and small.”
Within a program like Youth ERA, the hope is still high that the numbers given by OHA could decrease with the right efforts.
“We focus on suicide and healing from trauma because it’s solvable,” Rafferty said. “Youth suicide is a solvable problem. That thought might invoke an impression of naivety from some, but there's also something fundamentally true in it — youth, families and communities need to hear that it is a solvable problem because it so often seems overwhelming and irrational. The fact is, if we have access to the resources, we can prevent suicide.”