When a teenager dies by suicide, it makes news. What isn’t making as much news are the efforts area schools and community organizations are pursuing to ensure kids have access to the support structures they need so they don’t reach the stage where suicide seems like a solution.
The loss of two middle school students and a middle school counselor to suicide in Durango over the last three years, as well as the deaths of a 10-year-old elementary school student in Dolores and a 14-year-old student at Montezuma-Cortez High School this fall, has brought home the fact that younger students are at higher risk than most of us knew.
In November, the Centers for Disease Control issued a report saying the number of kids ages 10-14 who died by suicide had doubled since 1999, with the majority of the increase happening between 2007 and 2014, the last year results were available to the CDC. Suicide deaths surpassed the number of kids who died in motor vehicle crashes in that age group for the first time.
The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, administered earlier this year, found an alarming statistic about eighth-graders at both of Durango School District 9-R’s two middle schools, Escalante and Miller. Between 22.2 and 25.7 percent of the students have considered suicide – around 100 students at each – and 14 to 22.6 percent of those students have made a plan of how they would end their lives.
The numbers were not much better for ninth-graders, where almost 65 percent – about 190 students – reported their mental health had not been good for one or more days during the previous 30 days, and about one-third had stopped doing usual activities in the last 12 months because they felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more. About 45 students had considered suicide.
Signs of SuicideMiller Middle School was hit hard when Sawyer Ward killed himself 18 months ago, and school officials realized this was an area of concern, Principal Cito Nuhn said. Staff members decided to adopt the SOS (Signs of Suicide) Middle School and High School Prevention Programs through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an evidence-based program that was used at Durango High School for eight years after the suicide of Elise Kotlar in 2007.
“I can’t say it was only because of the program that DHS didn’t have any suicides during those years,” said Sarah St. John, formerly a counselor at DHS and now at Miller. “But it definitely helped.”
Miller’s program has specific goals for the program, Nuhn told parents in a letter:
To help our students understand that depression is a treatable illness.To explain that suicide is a preventable tragedy that often occurs as a result of untreated depression.To provide students training in how to identify serious depression and potential suicidal thoughts in themselves or a friend.To impress upon youth that they can help themselves or a friend by taking the simple step of talking to a responsible adult about their concerns.To help students know who they can turn to for help at school if they need it.The school completed a mental health screening last week as part of its SOS program, and every student was given a card with resources such as Safe2Tell, the Second Wind Fund and crisis hotlines in English and Spanish. More education will take place after winter break.
Strong adult relationshipsCreating safe places for kids is a key part of helping them through tough times.
“Building positive relationships with adults makes a huge difference in the long run,” said Jonathan Hoerl, the new principal at DHS. “The teachers in our advisories are keeping an eye on attendance and grades, talking to families every week and keeping an eye on anxiety, stress, aggression and other warning factors.”
Hoerl also brought in the concept of flex-teams, which include the grade level academic and social/emotional advisers, an administration member and a member of the Exception Student Services team.
“It seems like we spend most of our time talking about 5 percent of our students,” he said. “This way, we talk about all of our students, and we send an email to staff with the students we will be talking to so we can elicit feedback from teachers who are in the forefront. They’ll say, ‘All of a sudden, John’s not turning in his homework, I haven’t seen any homework from him for three weeks,’ because they know we can dig in and figure out what’s happening.”
Finding the gapsDurango already has many organizations addressing youth depression and suicide, including La Plata Youth Services; Axis Health System, which runs two School-Based Health Centers at 9-R schools; The 4 Corners Rainbow Youth Center, which provides support and resources to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning teens and their allies and families; the Second Wind Fund, which offers free and subsidized therapy for students considering or who have attempted suicide; and members of several task forces, including the San Juan Basin Child Fatality Review Team and a Behavioral Health Working Group.
District 9-R registered nurse Laura Schiavone and San Juan Basin Health Department Deputy Director of Programs Flannery O’Neil are taking on the task of surveying all of the offerings and identifying any gaps thanks to a grant from Johnson & Johnson’s School Health Leadership Program.
“Our focus is on what supports students might need if they’re dealing with depression or feeling anxiety that may be leading to suicidal thinking,” O’Neil said. “It may be access to behavioral health specialists, peer-to-peer support, a place to go when they need support from their friends or family.”
The goal is to have the necessary resources and be able to guide teens to those that will best serve them.
“Ultimately, we want to help them find their passion, find their strength, help them answer, ‘Is there a place for them in this community?’” O’Neil said.