by Noah Whitaker
Teen suicide. These two words strike fear into the hearts of most parents. Due to this fear, the topic is frequently treated like a boogieman, and people believe that if they don’t talk about it, will not happen. The sad truth is that reality is the exact opposite. Silence leads to lost lives. In order to combat this issue we must confront it, become educated, expand, and strengthen programs to prevent, intervene, treat, and unfortunately, respond in the aftermath of suicide (postvention).
The California legislature recently passed Assembly Bill 2246 (2015-2016), which is titled “Pupil Suicide Prevention Policies.” This landmark legislation will require schools and school districts serving student populations, including 7th through 12th grades, to have formal policies on suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention. Previously, this had not been the case, and sadly, it has been far too common to hear ‘we don’t have that problem here,’ when conversing with some administrators. The reality of teen suicide must now be confronted.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, in the year 2014 (the most recent year in which custom data is available) suicide was the second leading cause of death for teens (aged 13-19). Although that seems alarming, teenagers do not often die by any cause of death. The number of teens who died by suicide that year was 2,145. This indicates that teenage suicide is a problem, but it is not an epidemic, nor does it require an overwhelming program. That being said, the loss of a single person is devastating to family, friends, and community. Each life is valuable and we cannot afford them to be lost.
The consensus of suicide prevention professionals is that suicide deaths can be stopped through better prevention efforts that build coping skills, early identification such as comprehensive screening, programs to intervene when risk factors are detected, and ongoing support programs. This is a problem that we can address.
A person who is suicidal usually exhibits warning signs that they are at risk. Unlike what you’ll see in many news stories, a suicide death is rarely if ever attributable to a single cause such as bullying, a break-up, or a similar issue. Rather than one cause, suicide deaths are almost always the result of multiple risk factors that work together to lead a person to the belief that death is a better choice than life. Think of suicide as a wolf with a leg caught in a trap. The pain is so intense that the wolf will do nearly anything to escape the pain, including biting its own leg off. The emotional pain that leads to suicide is similarly so intense that the person will do anything to end it.
Teenagers have risks factors that can indicate suicidal thoughts and feelings. These factors include, but are not limited to: aggressive or fighting behaviors; a home environment that is not tightly knit or has violence; major changes in family structure such as divorce, death, or job loss; a perception of a bad school environment; family history of mental illness, especially if it includes suicide loss; self-harm behaviors such as cutting; and a situational crisis such as a new major stressor like academic failure, divorce, death, sexual abuse, the loss of a close friendship, or other crises. These can all signal potential risk, and these issues must be taken seriously. Even if all of these factors are present, it does not necessarily mean a suicide attempt or completion will occur. It does indicate that risk is high, and the youth is likely in emotional pain and in need of additional supports to cope with, reduce, and ultimately overcome that pain.
The Tulare & Kings Counties Suicide Prevention Task Force is a local collaborative comprised of representatives from different sectors of our community, and includes members of government agencies, community-based organizations, faith-based organizations, retirees, students, volunteers, and others. We are usually referred to simply as the SPTF. Our group has pledged our availability to work with school districts or sites on meeting the requirements of AB 2246.
There are local pioneers in this area. Last year the SPTF was invited to Central Valley Christian Schools by Superintendent Larry Baker, following losses to suicide in the community. We met with administrators and offered an in-service course on suicide and prevention to their staff and faculty. The school devoted an impressive amount of time and energy to open this conversation and make improvements in their handling of the problem.
Following this initial engagement, CVC High School Principal Greg Wojczynski contacted us to start the process of creating a formalized plan to address their school’s response to suicide. This was highly progressive, as AB 2246 had yet to be introduced when our collaboration began. The SPTF brought our community partners forward to provide advice, and formulate a plan for support. Our partners included organizations such as: Visalia Youth Services, the Psychiatric Emergency Team with Tulare County Health & Human Services Agency’s Mental Health Branch, in addition to other partners including a school psychologist and a public health nurse.
Principal Wojczynski worked with me, in my role as task force coordinator, to become familiar with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) publication “Preventing a Suicide: A Toolkit for High Schools.” This guide provides a step-by-step approach to identifying opportunities, training, prevention, and intervention programs—a variety of supportive resources. This guide, coupled with the participation of our local community partners, has provided the backbone for a comprehensive plan for CVC’s implementation.
Starting the week of September 5-11th, we will be sending materials to all schools serving students grades 7 through 12 in both Tulare and Kings Counties. We will provide a hard copy of SAMHSA’s toolkit, a copy of the Trevor Project, and AFSP’s Model School District Policy on Suicide Prevention (http://www.thetrevorproject.org/pages/modelschoolpolicy), our Hope Vol. 2 Comic Book, which focuses on bullying, a short educational document about common myths and facts, a wallet card with local resources, and additional materials. It is our goal to work with any willing school district to create a comprehensive plan to protect our students.
If you or someone you know is at risk for suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255.
If you would like to learn more about the SPTF, refer to the contact information below:
For Non-Crises Information Related to the SPTF
Suicide Prevention Task Force
C/O Noah Whitaker
5957 S. Mooney Blvd.
Visalia, CA 93277
Coordinator’s Email: sptf@tularehhsa[dot]org
Check out KRL’s Mental Health section for more mental health related articles.