During the first month of this school year, the Bellevue School District reported 56 student suicide intervention plans, nine student hospitalizations and one death by suicide.
“It’s more than half what we did in 2015-16 and in 2016-17 – it’s probably 40 percent of what we did all year in 2016-17,” Bellevue School District’s Supervisor of Counseling Deborah Kraft said, noting that those numbers are “pretty high.”
Kraft said she thinks a reason for the rise is that the district is doing a better of job of convincing students it’s good to tell a counselor or teacher when they’re having suicidal thoughts and, in turn, more students are opening up. When counselors intervene, they keep the student until they are picked up by his or her parents and taken to a doctor or the hospital.
“I think our staff is good at at identifying kids that look like they’re in need of support and our parents are doing a better job of letting us know when there’s postings on social media that are concerning,” Kraft added. “I think it’s not just one thing.”
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-24 in the state of Washington and the second leading cause of death nationally, the Jason Foundation Inc., a nationally recognized leader in youth suicide prevention and awareness, reports.
According to the Healthy Youth Survey, 6 percent of eighth-grade students, 7 percent of 10th-grade and 7 percent of 12th-grade students in Washington state attempted suicide in 2016. The Healthy Youth Survey is taken every other year and is led by the Office of Superintendent of Instruction and the Department of Health, among other organizations.
In King County, the 2016 data from the survey indicated one in five 10th graders considered suicide while one in 10 attempted to take their life, Youth Eastside Services (YES) clinician and Open Access Supervisor Suzanne Peterson said.
Although slight, Peterson recalled an increase from 2014 data in terms of students feeling more pressure and higher expectations at school, along with higher levels and rates of considering suicide and attempts.
“It’s pretty concerning, although not surprising, unfortunately,” Peterson said. “Because the youth I work with and the number of concerns and types of concerns are so much different from my generation.”
Peterson said there’s often higher expectations to perform well in school and go to college. In addition, the stigma that goes along with talking about mental health can sometimes lead students to internalize feelings and feel hopeless.
Of equal weight are relationship issues and comparing oneself to others on social media, Peterson said of some of the reasons youth in Washington would consider suicide, but she acknowledged youth on the Eastside may face a bit higher pressures in academics.
“These youth seem to be higher risk on the Eastside because of types of pressure they have to perform at the level that their schools and parents are expecting,” she said.
And Eastside schools are high performing. A website called SchoolDigger.com ranked Newport High School and Bellevue High School in the top 10 high schools in Washington state for the 2016-17 school year. Additionally, two Bellevue middle schools were also high ranking. The rankings were based off of state test scores and several other Eastside schools in Mercer Island and Lake Washington school districts also ranked well.
In a response to the idea that academic pressures could be a cause for some youth to consider suicide, Elizabeth Sytman, a spokeswoman with the district, said there are social and emotional aspects to depression and suicide ideation that is the district’s commitment as a community, including the work the district does with community partners, to support students where they are.
“We continue to feel encouraged that students are telling us how they are feeling and allowing adults, including parents, community members, etc., who are part of their support system to intervene and support them,” Sytman said.
Kraft said reasons a teenager or pre-teen would turn to suicide are among a range of A to Z with much of it depending on the student, the family culture, what the student expects from himself and what he expects others expect from him.
“It can be social stuff, academic stuff, it can be drug and alcohol stuff, it be can be somebody else’s drug and alcohol stuff,” she said. “It’s a huge gamut.”
What’s being done in Bellevue schools
School counselors are trained in cognitive behavior therapy, a brief solution-focused therapy, and are getting training in trauma-focused cognitive behaviour therapy, Kraft said. The school district is strengthening partnerships with mental health providers and they’re exploring a new resource called the SBIRT, or Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment.
Slated to be funded by King County Best Starts for Kids dollars, the SBIRT would be available for use in the 2018-19 school year. The school-based mental health model would help schools intervene early and would be implemented in middle schools.
Kraft said the district sent a counselor and administrator to a training with King County Public Health and they plan to meet again Nov. 16-17 to make plans for the district’s seven middle schools. Although King County hasn’t picked a type of screener yet, Kraft said she is excited the district will have yet another avenue to reach kids.
Additionally, mental health services are set to start at the school-based health center at Highland Middle School this week, according to Hannah Johnson, a spokeswoman with Best Starts for Kids. The clinic is offered in partnership with International Community Health Services, Youth Eastside Services and the district.
But of the several partnerships, resources and avenues for youth suicide prevention, Kraft lauds the Social Emotional Learning curriculum’s impact.
“Growing it through the elementary [schools] about five to six years ago and now those third graders are in eighth grade and started Ruler and I think we have a common language now, which is paying off,” Kraft said.
The district’s 52 counselors have done a good job of communicating to students that they should tell someone if their friend mentions suicide, as well as educating parents on the stresses students face, she added.
“Our kids are talking differently to each other, they’re collaborating more. It’s a slow but positive change and I’m really very excited about it,” she said of the Social Emotional Learning. “And as our grow kids through, it will be a different, I hope. I mean more kids will be able to handle stress in positive ways rather than burying it.”
The idea is, she explained, if students feel more in control of themselves and not completely hopeless, then they know that, at the end of the day, one of the people they can always depend on is themselves and they won’t get to such a low point.
The district also currently partners with the Youth Eastside Services, Sound Mental Health, Sea Mar, Asian Counseling and Referral Service, the University of Washington, the Smart Center Seattle and the King County Public Health. They’re always looking for more organizations, however.
Families and friends
Because most youth suicides occur outside of school, it’s especially important for parents and friends to listen and be aware.
Brett Marciel, a spokesman for the Jason Foundation, said warning signs include teens exhibiting signs of depression or a preoccupation with death and suicide. Out of character behavior, such as outgoing to introverted mannerisms, and no longer hanging out with friends or enjoying previous interests are some of the more subtle yet biggest warning signs, he said.
“One thing we do see a lot of in young girls is making plans and letting other friends know about final plans or giving away possessions,” he said.
Peterson said loved ones should take all suicidal statements and threats seriously, even if a parent thinks their child is doing it for attention.
“The other big thing is just being open about the conversation,” she said, adding that there is a stigma but if parents and friends are non-judgmental, it can make a difference. “And then having parents be mindful of pressure and expectations they’re putting on their kids … that can, over time, chip away at kids’ sense of self worth.”
In addition to not leaving suicidal youth alone, Kraft recommends removing any threats to safety including weapons, medications, knives and more.
“I think the more aware you are of your student and their mood and their social media accounts and statements, how they’re spending their time, communicating with your kids – all of those are important,” Kraft said. “I think it’s important to listen.”
Once youth are identified to have suicidal thoughts, it’s important to get them into counseling, which can last months to a year, depending on the individualized plan.
If you or someone you know is talking about suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is staffed around the clock, at 1-800-273-8255. For more information, visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.