For Good: Parents fight back to prevent teen suicide

This is how Lisa and Chris Acierno handle emotional pain: They grab it with all their strength and fight back.

They aggressively raise money and awareness to help prevent others from feeling the pain they’ve dealt with for more than two years -- and they know will never go away.

“We do it because of Hailey,’’ Lisa says.

The youngest of three Acierno children, Hailey, took her own life on March 28, 2017. The Wharton High School student, who battled mental illness for years, was only 17.

Her parents could have responded by shutting down emotionally, mentally, and physically. But the New Tampa couple has chosen to do just the opposite.

“I could become an alcoholic, I could hide in my room all day or I could make a positive change,’’ Lisa says.

Lisa and Chris Acierno hold a picture of their daughter Hailey who died from suicide.They chose the third option because, the Aciernos say, that’s what Hailey would want.

“She knew she was sick,’’ Lisa says. “She always felt she was a burden. She felt like she was never going to be able to hold a job or go to a good college. She felt like she was going to be homeless. But despite how she felt inside, she lived her life always being that caring person and being funny. I feel like if we just curled up in a ball and did nothing, she would be mad at us. I feel like she’s kind of been pushing us just because that’s what she would want. I feel like she would want to make a difference. Even if it saves one person, that’s what she would want.’’

The Aciernos recognize teen suicide as a major problem and they’re trying to help find solutions. It’s not an easy task. Dr. Kristin Kosyluk, an Assistant Professor of Mental Health Law and Policy at the University of South Florida in Tampa, says that teen suicide is an ongoing problem nationwide.

“In general, people just don’t have a lot of awareness about mental health and they don’t know how to spot the warning signs,’’ Kosyluk says. “Plus, in a lot of cases, family connections aren’t strong. Most parents have to work and don’t have as much time to spend with their children as they would like. There’s also a stigma about mental health that prevents many people from seeking help. And even when people do try to get help, it sometimes can be difficult because changing healthcare can make getting access to help difficult.’’

Kosyluk points to numbers in a national study on teen suicide that the Center for Disease Control performs every other year. The most recent study came out in 2017 and involved students in ninth- through 12th-grade. That study showed that 22.1 percent of females and 11.9 percent of males had considered attempting suicide, 17.1 percent of females and 9.7 percent of males had planned suicide and 9.3 percent of females and 5.1 percent of males had attempted suicide.

Hailey's Voice of Hope

The Aciernos are well aware of the numbers and they want Hailey to be more than a statistic. They want her to be a voice to raise awareness about teen mental health. That’s why they started a 501C3 called Hailey’s Voice of Hope’’ to help reduce the problem. Last summer, Lisa joined with veteran filmmaker Steve Hollingshead and a local writer to produce a short documentary using Hailey as a face for teen mental health.

That’s why the Aciernos organized a fundraising golf tournament last fall. Then came the task of deciding how to best use the money they raised. The answer came one night as Lisa watched television. Lisa spotted Deborah Binion, a Seattle-area mother who had lost her son to suicide in 2010. Binion and her husband, Willie, started the Jordan Binion Project, which has been used to train teachers throughout the state of Washington to spot warning signs and offer help.

“They were doing exactly what we wanted, so why try to re-invent the wheel?’’ Lisa says.

Lisa reached out to Deborah. Then she reached out to Hillsborough County District 3 School Board member Cindy Stuart about bringing the project to the Tampa area. Stuart liked the idea, especially when she heard taxpayers wouldn’t have to absorb any of the cost. Hailey’s Voice of Hope would take care of that.

“We put Lisa in front of our student support service staff and they loved the idea,’’ Stuart says. “We have counselors that are available when there is a crisis. That’s great, but it’s reactive. This is something that is proactive.’’

The Binions came to Tampa shortly before the end of this school year. Their class was offered voluntarily to Wharton’s faculty and, Stuart says, the vast majority of the teachers participated. They’re now certified to teach the Binion class and the next step will be implemented in August. That’s when the Wharton faculty members will start teaching the class to teachers throughout the rest of Hillsborough County.

Being proactive for prevention

But the Aciernos' work is far from complete. Lisa, her three sisters, and four friends from Tampa were in Boston in June to participate in an 18-mile walk to raise money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Another fund-raising golf tournament will be held in October.

Yvette Boué, her dog Dixie, Lisa Acierno, and Deborah Ingalls days before the 16 mile "Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk".On June 28th, Lisa, 49, left her job as a paralegal to devote more time to Hailey’s Voice of Hope and develop other ways to promote mental health awareness.  

“I get a lot of phone calls asking me to come talk at this or that event,’’ Lisa says. “Work’s been great about being flexible. But I just don’t have the time to do all that I would like to. Look what we’ve done with me working full time. I think we can do a lot more if I can really devote my full time to it.’’

Lisa also has been through the Binion training and hopes to teach the class to teachers everywhere she can. Chris, 51, will continue his job as a sales manager at Mettler Toledo, but will continue to take an active role in Hailey’s Voice of Hope. Their sons, Ryan, 27, and Josh, 23, also have been helping with their parents' efforts.

Although the Aciernos have been working toward a common goal, which they consider part of their therapy, they’ve handled their grief in different ways.

Lisa is an extrovert, constantly posting pictures and memories of Hailey on Facebook.

Chris is an introvert and has turned to golf and playing the drums in a local band as his therapy. In fact, 83 Degrees Media's interview with Chris is the first time he has agreed to talk about Hailey for publication.

“Time has helped a little, but it’s never going to take it all away,’’ Chris says. “Compared to where we were a year and a half ago, there’s a big difference. You kind of find ways to deal with it. I don’t know if my way is the right way or the wrong way. I block it in some ways. But I still want to help others. My warning to anyone faced with the same situation is don’t try to deny it. There’s help out there. Go get it.’’
For more information, visit the Hailey’s Voice of Hope website.

Here are links to additional information and organizations mentioned in this story:The phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8355. Please call it if you or a loved one need it.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Patrick Yasinskas.

Patrick “Pat” Yasinskas is an award-winning Tampa-based freelance writer. He has covered the National Football League since 1992 and worked for The Tampa Tribune, The Charlotte Observer and ESPN. He also has served as a selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the NFC South chairman of the Pro Football Writers Association. He also has been an avid baseball card collector since the 1970s.