SOUTH JORDAN (ABC4 News) – A community event will allow teens and young adults to lead the conversation about suicide prevention on Monday. This comes after the southwestern quadrant of Salt Lake County saw a spike in teen suicides in the last couple of years.
Ezra Pugliano, 22, originally came up with the idea for ‘Community Connections Night’ last year, an annual event for anyone from the ages of 12 to 24 to discuss solutions for suicide prevention, engage with others going through hardship, and participate in activities to de-stigmatize the topic of suicide.
“I work with a lot of young people who attend Herriman, Riverton, and Bingham – all schools that have been hit hard by suicide. It’s affected a lot of them. They’re really upset, sad, and they don’t know what their future will be like in regards to mental health,” said Pugliano.
Pugliano also has a personal connection to suicide. He lost his friend, Cory Swapp to suicide several years ago.
“I didn’t know he had those struggles. He kept it all in and unfortunately, wasn’t able to live any longer,” he said.
Judi Van Eperen became a dedicated volunteer to the event since she met Pugliano last year, who both share the same loss. She lost her son, Chris to suicide in December 2017. He was 19 years old.
“As most people can understand that when you go through trauma, you’re just searching for something to help alleviate the pain. You want to make things better and I felt drawn to getting involved with suicide prevention,” said Van Eperen. “This is not a Herriman problem, it’s not a South Jordan problem, it’s a world problem and I need to help other people.”
While the wound is still fresh for her, Van Eperen said her advocacy work helps in her healing process.
“Being part of this in a selfish way, I can talk about Chris. As his mom, I don’t want to be forgotten nor do I want this to be what defines him, cause he was so much more than this final act,” she said tearfully. “If I can help a young person realize that they are so loved and this world will never be a better place without them…if I can save a family from going through what our family has gone through, it makes our loss, our sacrifice a little bit easier.”
Both Pugliano and Van Eperen acknowledge there’s no specific solution for suicide prevention, but strongly believe that teenagers and young adults need to be the individuals leading the conversation.
“A lot of times legislators just talk to people their age when it comes to this issue. They’re not interviewing young people who are affected. We’re the ones that have our friends die by suicide. We’re the ones that go to school and see it first hand,” said Pugliano. “It’s so important that if you really want to help end the stigma around mental health, you should involve young people.”
Pugliano emphasized that his goal is to create a comfortable and safe environment for teens and young adults at his event.
“If we named our event ‘Suicide Awareness Night,’ no young people would come. So we came up with the name ‘Community Connections Event’ and it’ll be something fun. We’ll have chalk art where you can spray paint your name as a commitment to stay,” he said. “We’re going to have resources and medical professionals there. We’ll have chat rooms for you to get to know kids from other schools or your own school. We love our kids. We don’t want them to feel like death by suicide is the only way out.”
Community Connections Night will take place Monday from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Chick-Fil-A in South Jordan (11494 District Drive). The event is free and free food will be provided for attendees.