SPEAK Up: Lives are at stake

High school students serve as speak ambassadors and share information about suicide awareness and prevention with their peers. Courtesy: Huntsville hospital foundation

Huntsville Hospital Foundation’s Suicide Prevention & Awareness campaign now in third year

By Claire Aiello, Vice President, Marketing & Communications

It used to be that suicide was a topic schools and families shied away from discussing. That is no longer the case, and Huntsville Hospital Foundation is working to keep the conversation active through its SPEAK Program.

The letters stand for Suicide ⋅ Prevention ⋅ Empowerment ⋅ Awareness ⋅ Knowledge and the program was founded in 2016 to address the need for more awareness in schools and in families. Five people founded it: Candy Burnett, Dr. Aparna Vuppala, Amelia Ragland, Rena Anderson and Janet Gabel. They saw an immediate need to get the message to students that help is always available, no matter what pressures you are facing.

“The rising rate of teen suicides in the country and state was the main reason Candy Burnett approached me to see if we can develop a program locally to help prevent youth suicide,” said Dr. Vuppala.

Dr. Vuppala is the SPEAK program’s medical director, lending expertise from her work as a child and adolescent psychiatrist. The team also consists of two suicide prevention educators who go in schools to talk with students. Taylor Yeazitzis works in Huntsville City Schools and Melissa Knight works in Madison City and Madison County Schools. Additionally, Anna Manning serves as the program’s coordinator through Huntsville Hospital Foundation.

“In the beginning, they were able to slowly start getting in the schools, and the first year they reached about 1,500 students,” said Manning. “This year, it was almost 5,000. The schools are much more receptive to it now, because they know us.”

Manning says one of the problems is, with a topic such as suicide, sometimes it takes incidents happening to get people to talk about it.

“Unfortunately, we’ve had a lot of loss. Last year, during the school year, we lost three students — one from each school system to suicide — and there are probably more. Those are just the three we know about,” said Manning.

Every year, SPEAK training is offered to all 8th and 10th grade students in Huntsville City Schools and Madison City Schools, and 7th and 10th graders in Madison County Schools. The team also conducts annual training for teachers, school counselors, social workers, nurses and school resource officers. They also host an annual conference for physicians and nurse practitioners, so they are up to date on the latest suicide awareness and prevention training.

Manning also meets with student ambassadors monthly to talk about issues that affect mental health, such as self esteem, abuse and loss.

“The ambassadors come and learn as much as they can, and take that information back to their friends, to be more aware, more informed,” Manning said. “They also come and volunteer at SPEAK events.”

The program is always looking for more student ambassadors in grades 10-12. If your teen is interested, please call 256-541-5131 or email anna4speak@gmail.com. Additionally, please be on the lookout for community SPEAK sessions in your local high school in the near future. All are welcome and encouraged to attend.

SPEAK North Alabama app

There is a free SPEAK North Alabama app that offers confidential, immediate help for suicide prevention. For example, after downloading the app, if you choose “Signs” the app allows you to select different symptoms you might be noticing in a friend or co-worker. After you make selections, it will tell you if these are mild, moderate or severe and suggest action steps, as well as what to say and what not to say to the person. The app also lists contact information for all mental health care providers and programs in North Alabama, so you can encourage your friend to get help.

The app also has section for veterans and LGTBQ. Search ‘SPEAK North Alabama’ in your phone’s app store.


Contributed by Claire Aiello, Vice President, Marketing & Communications

This article is published in the October 2019 issue of Initiatives magazine.