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Duchnowski: Shining a light on suicide prevention and fire safety

Published: Wednesday, June 5, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

One of my closest friends got bad news last week.

In October, Jen Slepicka and a handful of friends (me included) organized a sky lantern festival, at which about 240 Chinese sky lanterns took flight from Yorkville High School’s football field in Kendall County. The event raised more than $4,200 for Suicide Prevention Services, a nonprofit that Slepicka’s mother founded after Slepicka’s grandma committed suicide.

Slepicka had rallied her troops and was planning a bigger and better sky lantern launch Saturday, but four days before the big event, she learned the state fire marshal had banned the lanterns. Essentially, according to a letter from State Fire Marshal Larry Matkaitis, his office’s consumer fireworks review committee had expanded the definition of fireworks to include these lanterns.

It’s fair to say they could present some fire danger. The rice-paper lanterns rely on wax fuel cells to fill them with hot air and float. If everything goes right, the fuel cell burns itself out and the lantern falls to the ground completely harmless. We didn’t get any complaints after the festival in October, but we all know things don’t always go right. I could see how firefighters might be concerned about fire floating in the air uncontrolled.

The timing of the ban was unfortunate. Slepicka reached out to state representatives, the fire marshal, the governor and – yes, she did – President Barack Obama. The event wasn’t granted an exception to the new law, but she and other organizers found alternatives and still managed to raise about $4,000 for a worthy cause.

Raising awareness: The real power behind events like a charity sky lantern launch is raising awareness about the organization and the problem it addresses.

Here in DeKalb County, suicide attempts, especially among youth, likely are increasing. In 2010, DeKalb police responded to 110 suicide attempts, according to an article we published in February. In 2012, that number increased to 162.

Countywide, successful suicide attempts doubled from five in 2010 to 10 in 2012.

Andrea Monroe, associate director of the DeKalb County Youth Service Bureau, says counselors at her organization have seen a steady increase over the past three years of clients battling suicidal thoughts.

The bureau provides weekly counseling for children ages 8 to 18 and their families, but they can increase the counseling sessions or refer clients to other agencies if suicide or deep depression surfaces, Monroe said. Some new clients immediately reveal suicidal thoughts, but more often, trained counselors learn of them after they have built trust.

“More often than not, we have a relationship built with a client, and they feel more comfortable talking about it,” Monroe said.

If you or someone you know might benefit from youth or family counseling, you can learn more about the Youth Service Bureau at dcysb.com, or by calling 815-748-2010.

Services focused on suicide: Suicide Prevention Services, based in Batavia, also serves DeKalb County.

A support group for people who have attempted suicide meets on the first and third Wednesday of each month from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in Batavia. Support groups for survivors of suicide – those whose friends or loved ones have committed suicide – meet monthly in Sandwich and Aurora.

You can learn more about these groups and other services by calling Suicide Prevention Services’ depression hotline. The toll-free national number is 800-273-8255, or call their Fox Valley office at 630-482-9696. You can also find them online at www.spsamerica.org.

Promoting fire safety: Meanwhile, local firefighters are trying to spread the word about the sky lantern ban.

In Sycamore, fire leaders told local wedding venues, park districts and retailers about it. Local retailers took sky lanterns off their shelves, and managers at local venues already knew Sycamore firefighters had denied requests to use them last summer, Sycamore Fire Chief Peter Polarek said.

“We’re just trying to get the word out, because we’re trying to avoid a problem,” Polarek said. “As well as, we don’t want people to go out and buy something they can’t use.”

Polarek first heard of the lanterns last summer when someone asked about setting them off at a wedding. Sycamore firefighters denied that request because of the dry weather conditions, but even in less parched environments, they’re still not a good idea, Polarek said.

“Basically, you let it go,” he said, “and you have no idea where it’s going to end up.”

• Jillian Duchnowski is the Daily Chronicle’s news editor. Reach her at 815-756-4841, ext. 2221, or email jduchnowski@shawmedia.com.

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