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SCHS students mourn death of peer

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Students at South Charleston High School wore green on Tuesday because it was Amber Williamson's favorite color. Some even wore T-shirts with messages like "Rest In Peace Amber," Principal Mike Arbogast said.

"We don't have answers for the kids, we just ask them to remember the great things about her. She was an honor student, and she excelled in writing. She had a very bright future ahead of her," he said.

Williamson, a 15-year-old honors student at SCHS, left a note then walked into the path of an oncoming train just past midnight Sunday morning in South Charleston.

In the past couple days, crisis response counselors have been in and out of the high school, talking to Amber's former classmates and leading therapeutic activities, like encouraging students to write about her and pass their messages on to her family.

"I've taught for 29 years, but I've never dealt with something like this. We are in awe of this tragic event, and we are thinking of and praying for her parents and her family," Arbogast said.

Amber had a 4.1 grade-point average. She was passionate about animals and loved music, traveling and planning parties, according to her obituary.

Katie Peal, a freshman at SCHS, was among the students who attended a vigil in Amber's memory Tuesday evening at the school.

"She was really nice and intelligent. She was always welcoming. Everyone loved her and her style. A lot of people were crying today. It was a hard day," said Peal, who also attended Dunbar Middle School with Amber. "Everyone was really shocked because she didn't seem like the type of person to do something like that. A lot of us wish we could've helped her with her problem. It wasn't worth her taking her life."

Students at SCHS showed an outpouring of condolences on social media sites -- even creating a "We love you Amber" Twitter account.

"I started bawling when I saw Amber's empty seat in class ... Can't this just be a bad dream?" one post read. "I was calm until I saw a train go by, and I lost it," said another.

Debbie Cardwell, founder of Messages for Hope, a Charleston-based organization dedicated to providing "postvention" support to friends and family members who have lost loved ones to suicide, said adolescents often have the hardest time coping with suicide.

"The first step for the ones who are left behind is to learn not to be ashamed -- to not accept guilt or blame," she said. "It's the only way people can heal. But many people who have not been touched by suicide simply do not know the right things to say."

Cardwell knows. Her daughter, also named Amber, killed herself in 2008.

Since then, Cardwell has been building awareness about mental illness, suicide prevention and intervention, and encouraging healing for "suicide survivors." Her program is a place for those "left behind" to find support, she said.

While the Jason Flatt Act was passed in West Virginia in 2012 and requires professional development for educators to identify warning signs in students at risk, suicide continues to be a top cause of death among youths, Cardwell said.

Nearly 40,000 people in the U.S. die by suicide every year, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among those 15 to 24 years old.

"A lot of times with this age group, people don't want to discuss it at all. But this can have a huge impact on their lives. We've been having to allow some adolescents into our adult grief groups simply because there is no other place for them to go," Cardwell said.

"The message that the public needs to understand is that there is hope, there are people to talk to. There's always a different solution."

In lieu of flowers, Amber's family asks that donations be made to the Kanawha/Charleston Humane Association Animal Shelter.

To contact Messages for Hope, call 304-389-8558 or visit www.messagesforhope.com.

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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