Pauline Fox’s daughter is in seventh grade. She’s seen firsthand how times have changed since she was a student.
“Kids today just have so much anxiety and feel more pressure,” she said.
She, like many parents, struggles to have deeper conversations with her daughter about what she is feeling and experiencing as a teen, she said.
Fox, along with about 50 other parents, grandparents and community members, attended the Bellevue Schools Foundation’s Signs of Suicide (SOS) program panel on Nov. 7.
Deborah Kraft, the director of K-12 counseling for the Bellevue School District (BSD), led a discussion on the district’s new SOS program. This suicide prevention program is being implemented in all of Bellevue’s public secondary schools.
Kraft, along with a panel of middle school and high school counselors, explained to parents how the program works, how staff are trained to implement it and how it fits into the existing mental health unit taught in seventh and 10th grade.
The SOS program educates students about the relationship between suicide and depression, identifies warning signs and provides resources to seek help for themselves or a friend.
Students are encouraged to seek help from trusted adults whether they have concerns about themselves or a friend using the “ACT” (Acknowledge, Care and Tell) message.
The program isn’t new. Hundreds of schools nationwide have implemented the evidence-based program within their existing health curriculum. BSD began introducing the program in some secondary schools last school year, however, every BSD school will implement the SOS program at each secondary school for grades seven and 10.
According to Kraft, BSD has had 41 suicide interventions this school year.
“(About) 50-90 percent of parents are unaware of their kids having suicidal thoughts,” she said. “(About) 60-95 percent of parents are unaware of their kids attempting suicide.”
More than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a mental health disorder, she said. The main cause is usually depression, and anxiety is the second highest cause.
The 2018 Healthy Youth Survey supports the claims, as data shows about one in 10 Washington high school students reported having attempted suicide in the past year, while about one in five reported seriously considering suicide. About one in three 10th and 12th graders reported feeling nervous, anxious, on edge and not being able to stop worrying last year. From 2016 to 2018, the percentage experiencing those feelings increased from 22 percent to 26 percent for eighth graders, 31 percent to 33 percent for 10th graders, and 33 percent to 35 percent for 12th graders.
“Depression and anxiety are treatable,” Kraft said. “But if it’s left untreated for six months or longer, it can develop to be a much bigger problem.”
The SOS program is designed to help students recognize the warning signs and get access to help.
On the day of the program, students watch an educational video and participate in guided discussion about depression, suicide and what to do if they are worried about a friend.
Students then complete a depression screening that indicates whether they have symptoms that may be consistent with depression. Kraft said parents and guardians may opt their student out of the screening if they desire.
Students then complete a response card noting whether they would like to speak to an adult following the presentation and school staff follow up with students as needed and notify parents of any follow-up conversation with their child.
The session also offered parents suggestions of how to talk to their children about mental health and suicide. Piper Sangston, and MHAT counselor at Sammamish High School, said the biggest thing a parent can do is to listen and take what their child says seriously.
“You need to acknowledge what they’re feeling and react to it… You have to take it seriously,” she said. “You need to care. Show that you’re there for them and that you care about them. Then you have to tell — access resources, and work to get them the help they need.”
The Nov. 7 panel was the first of two parent information sessions.
Following the presentation, Jan Onder said she was glad she attended the session.
“I have three grandchildren in the district, one of them is a teen,” she said. “Learning more about what kids are learning and what we can do to initiate those conversations was great.”
Jennifer Karls, a parent, said it was important to have the information available to parents.
“It’s important to know what the schools are doing and what we can be doing as parents,” Karls said. “It’s also important to acknowledge that this is a community problem. It’s not the school district’s problem to solve. We need to work together as a community to have bigger conversations about mental health.”