In 2016, 2,553 youth ages 10 to 19 died by suicide across the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In California, suicide rates continue to steadily increase for all age groups, especially among teens.
“More alarming is suicide was the third leading cause of death for teenagers and now it is the second leading cause of death for teenagers,” said Kathy Hunter, the William S. Hart Union High School District Director of Student Services. “Beyond that, we have a new group that has actually, I believe, a 300 percent increase in suicide attempts and completed suicide, which is our Latina girls between the ages of 10 and 16.”
To address this growing trend and concern, the Hart district Governing Board heard a presentation from Hunter about the district’s procedures for addressing suicide awareness and prevention during its meeting Wednesday.
“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for us to look at some of the stigmas that exist around mental health especially in communities of color,” Governing Board member Cherise Moore said.
Through site-base programs, ongoing counseling training, proposed teacher and staff training and a comprehensive grief guide, the Hart district is taking steps to identify those at risk of suicide and address mental health concerns proactively instead of reactively.
“There’s no way that a school, a friend, a family gets over this,” Assistant Clerk Linda Storli said. “It’s not fixable unless we can catch in the beginning.”
Currently, the Hart district is piloting two school-based programs to teach students about mental health and suicide awareness.
At Arroyo Seco Junior High staff have implemented “More than Sad.” The program from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention provides curriculum to school sites and helps teens recognize the signs of depression, challenges the stigma around mental health and demystifies the treatment process.
“What they do is meet with students in groups and actually role play and talk about: what if you have a friend who is saying this, would you interpret this as a warning sign, if you did what kind of things can you say back to that child to help them get help and who would you tell,” Hunter said. “They’re really working directly with our students.”
Students at Saugus High School are also working to implement a “Bring Change to Mind” club, which encourages teens to reach out to one another and raise awareness about mental health.
District-wide, schools also use the Capturing Kids Hearts program, which helps students and adults form relationships with one another, and the Text-A-Tip program for students to report if a student is in crisis.
“The more relationships kids build and the more connections then the more protective factors they have which helps prevent them from going through with a suicide,” Hunter said.
With the passage of Assembly Bill 2246 in 2016, California school districts are now required to adopt suicide prevention, intervention and follow-up plans for students in grades seven to 12.
In May 2017, the Hart district Governing Board signed off on a new policy that required all district staff to receive training about suicide warning signs, identify those who are at “high-risk” of suicide, intervene when a threat is reported or attempted and assist families in the event of a suicide.
The district began its staff training with its counseling teams who completed an online module, attended workshops and received additional resources and materials.
District staff also created a one-page, color-coded protocol sheet for school counselors, psychologists, therapist and assistant principals that helps them assess each student’s needs.
“It tells them what their responsibility and role is if we have a student in crisis on one of our campuses threatening to hurt themselves or who has potentially taken some steps toward that,” Hunter said.
This sheet includes four steps—crisis, assessment, action and follow-up—and details how each staff member should respond before, during and after a psychological crisis.
“Weekly our counselors have students they are assessing for suicide risk, it’s something that unfortunately is an everyday occurrence at every school at some point in time,” Hunter said. “Suicide is blind to gender, race, religion, socioeconomic status, it affects all families and groups.”
Looking forward, the Hart district is working on putting together suicide prevention training for all of its teachers and staff to present to all of its schools in August.
It is also looking at education opportunities for its students to teach them about warning signs and what to do if they have a friend show is suicidal.
Guide Through Grief
To help staff navigate the recent death of a student, the Hart district created a 27-page “Guide Through Grief” that provides a comprehensive framework to “address the range of impact death can have on a school community.”
Specifically, the guide includes information about emergency management planning, responding to a loss specific to one’s role, strategies for recovery and resources for further information.
“It takes them through how to communicate which is the most important piece of everything we do after someone has had a tragedy in their family,” Hunter said. “Next is how to work with our partners and collaborate altogether… And then last how to provide that ongoing follow-up.”
In the event of a student death, the Hart Crisis Response Team mobilizes to provide counseling groups and support for students. These counselors then follow the student’s class schedule and go into classrooms to help each teacher present the news and to complete classroom activities, like drawings, writings or group discussions about the loss.
The school’s principal also stays in contact with the child’s family to determine what they need and what information they would like to share with the public.
However, a district or school response to the loss of a student is different based on each individual situation.
“We use the grief guide as the basis and then it’s run based on what the family needs,” Hunter said.
On Twitter as @_ChristinaCox_