Against a backdrop of unrivaled natural beauty and a reputation for health and wellness, Hawaii has the highest rate in the country of teenagers attempting suicide. That disturbing statistic is why one of the top priorities for Mental Health America of Hawaii (MHA-Hawaii) is to protect against bullying, one of the major factors contributing to youth suicide.

Antonia Alvarez

Antonia Alvarez, director of Youth Suicide and Bullying Prevention at MHA-Hawaii, is committed to helping the young people of Hawaii find healthy ways to deal with bullying.

As director of Youth Suicide and Bullying Prevention at MHA-Hawaii, Antonia Alvarez, MSW, knows what it's like for teens living in island communities: "In many ways it's a great thing because it provides a lot of support; in multigenerational households there are a lot of people to turn to. But at the same time, that can make young people feel very isolated, if they don't feel like they can talk to anyone in confidence."

MHA-Hawaii executive director Marya Grambs offers an additional explanation for why teens don't seek help: "Shame. Culturally, there is a reluctance here to talk about mental health."

So Alvarez and the team at MHA-Hawaii are doing a lot of talking these days, working with teachers, counselors, parents, and students to raise awareness of the issues and provide training in prevention and intervention. They hope to teach people to identify the signs of a bullied or suicidal teen and also provide tools for encouraging teens to seek help.

So far, the Stop Youth Suicide and Bullying Project has trained over 4,000 youth and nearly 3,000 adults in Hawaii, including middle and high school students, elementary school parents and staff, social workers, school aides, foster parents, teachers, program staff, and several branches of the military and National Guard. The effort is being met with gratitude, both from those who have experienced desperation, "I will know where to turn if I need help," and from those who have watched others go through it: "Hearing about how unloving some people can be to gay students really opened my eyes."

If, as Marya Grambs sees it, "Bullying is the opposite of peace," she remains hopeful for a more peaceful future: "We need to reach kids in elementary school, to teach them that bullying is hurtful and that they, even they, can do something about it."

For more details, please visit the Mental Health America Hawaii's Stop Youth Suicide and Bullying Project.