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Her close friend was a 'saving grace,' and he's why she works to prevent suicide

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Ashlen Wright, 18, from West Fargo, is one of two teenagers who were named North Dakota’s top youth volunteers of 2018 for the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards. Wright advocates for teen mental health and suicide prevention by working to connect at-risk teens to people who can help them. David Samson / The Forum2 / 2

WEST FARGO — Ashlen Wright transferred to Sheyenne High School two years ago to take more advanced classes, but she also gained a close friend through the transfer.

The former Shanley High School student said Justin Olien was her "saving grace," with the star student, athlete and musician quickly taking her under his wing.

That's why Wright, now 18 and a senior, said Olien's death by suicide on May 18, 2016, at the age of 17 just hours after they last spoke was so shocking and unexpected.

After the loss, Wright started taking steps to inform herself and others about suicide and how to prevent it, and she's being recognized for her work.

Earlier this month, Wright was named North Dakota's top 2018 high school volunteer by the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards.

Three weeks after Olien's death, she joined the student board of Imagine Thriving, a regional nonprofit that promotes mental health education for young adults, provides support for those struggling emotionally and encourages a full-time mental wellness facilitator in every school district in the region to help identify those at risk.

Wright now advocates for teen mental health by raising money and awareness in her community and working to connect at-risk teens to people who can help.

"Many people with mental illnesses will develop them around my age, and so it's important to reach out to them now," she said. "It could happen to anyone. There's no specific personality type that fits into that specific idea so it's important to be aware of the symptoms."

Making a difference

Wright said Olien was a high-performing student who didn't fit the "depression archetype," so his death was a shock to friends and family. The loss encouraged her to do more about the issue, and she's encouraging others to get involved in volunteer work or advocacy for a cause that matters to them.

"Find what you're passionate about and then find a nonprofit or an adult who is also interested in that cause, and reach out to them," she said. "You can make a big difference."

In the past two years, she has spoken to hundreds of teens in schools, church groups and youth organizations and raised over $280,000 to promote mental health and prevent suicide. The money went to funding mental health professionals in schools or funding medicine and therapy for kids.

Before her mental health advocacy, Wright reached more than 1,700 girls with a program she created to get them excited about science, technology, engineering and math by founding the Red River Valley STEM Student Advisory Board.

Wright is also a nominee for the U.S. Presidential Scholars Program, which is the highest honor a high school student can achieve. Only two students are chosen from each state.

She plans to pursue a degree in business or policy after high school, and said she wants to continue volunteer work.

As the state high school winner of a Prudential Spirit of Community Award, Wright and middle school honoree Macy Vasquez of Grand Forks will receive $1,000, an engraved silver medallion and a trip in late April to Washington, D.C., where they will join honorees from the rest of the states. During that trip, 10 students will be named America's top youth volunteers.

The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards is a nationwide program that was created in 1995 by Prudential Financial and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. The program honors middle school and high school students for outstanding service to others at the local, state and national level.

"I'm glad that high school students are being recognized for good things because people often focus on the negative within that age group. It gives us hope for the future," said Wright's mother, Michelle Wright.

The program also named two North Dakota students as distinguished finalists, including Fargo's Dyuti Dawn, 17, a junior at Davies High School, and Century High School senior Erica Solberg, 18, in Bismarck.

Warning signs of suicide

The more signs a person shows, the greater the risk:

• Talking about wanting to die

• Looking for a way to kill oneself

• Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose

• Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain

• Talking about being a burden to others

• Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs

• Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly

• Sleeping too little or too much

• Withdrawing or feeling isolated

• Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge

• Displaying extreme mood swings

What to do

If someone you know shows warning signs:

• Don't leave the person alone.

• Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt.

• Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

• Take the person to an emergency room, or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.