In Washington state, suicide is the second leading cause of death among teens. A group of more than 100 parents, teens and other interested community members gathered at the Edmonds Library Tuesday night to learn about this serious topic and find out what kinds of resources are available for mental health support during the Teen Depression and Suicide Forum, part of the Sno-Isle Libraries Issues That Matter series.
Verdant Health Commission Superintendent Robin Fenn moderated the discussion, which included four panelists who work with local youth. Fenn, who is a licensed mental health clinician and has over 20 years of experience counseling young adults, asked audience members to raise their hands if they were concerned about a child in their life. A majority of those in the audience raised their hands.
Fenn shared results from Edmonds School District students who responded to the state’s 2016 Healthy Youth Survey, which showed that young people are dealing with depression and suicide. According to the data, of the 10th and 12th graders surveyed at district high schools, between 11-20 percent said they have no adults to talk with when they are sad and hopeless. A total of 31-39 percent reported that they are depressed, between 63-72 percent said they feel anxious most of the time and approximately 21 percent said they made a plan for suicide in the past year.
When Fenn was 16, her sister attempted suicide and survived. There was a sense of shame surrounding her family, and everybody at school treated her differently. There is still a stigma around depression and suicide today, she added.
Fenn said that a goal of Tuesday’s meeting is to practice having the hard conversations, which will help break down the stigma.
Bullying can add a lot of stress to teens. According to the same Health Youth Survey, one in four to one in five of Edmonds School District 10th and 12th graders get bullied every day at school. Teens just need someone to listen.
Noting that she already observed some tears and sniffles in the audience, Fenn offered this key takeaway: “Have the hard conversations, when they are the hardest to have.”
The first panelist to speak was JoAnna Rockwood, school psychologist and behavioral specialist from the Edmonds School District. She described a suicide prevention program, Signs of Suicide, now operating in all middle schools and high schools. It educates teachers, parents and students on warning signs and what to do to help a friend.
“It’s not your job to try to solve this problem,” Rockwood said. “It is your job to care enough to come tell somebody who can then help them.”
Screenings take place in the secondary schools for every student. She said this helps catch quiet students who have already made a suicide plan and students with performance anxiety. In addition, Rockwood said the district is also working to implement social-emotional learning and problem-solving curriculum in K-12 schools.
She said there is now a district-wide procedure in which every school employee is trained in depression and suicide, rather than just training for one or two adults on campus. The district is also encouraging students to make a student planning tool that would include ways to calm down, what to do in crisis and things to live for. There are now student support advocates, family resource advocates and mental health counselors in the school. In addition, state law requires that these staff members have three-hour suicide prevention training.
Rockwood said she believes that the issues of depression and suicide should be taught in school just like curriculum related to alcohol, drugs and sex.
The next panelist was Shira Hasson-Schiff, Director of Prevention Services for Cocoon House, which is a Snohomish County non-profit that fights to end the cycle of homelessness. She reminded the audience to breathe when feelings arise and invited everyone in the room to take a breath. Hasson-Schiff works with a lot of youth who have mental health needs, and she focuses on prevention.
“The biggest thing we can do is care and show we care,” Hasson-Schiff said. “Fortunately, that’s something all of us can do.”
She said 30-35 percent of the youth they serve are LGBTQ youth. These teens have an increase in risk of depression and suicide. She said a big reason for this is related to bullying or rejection from their family. Hasson-Schiff also said four out of five youth give warning signs before attempting suicide. She noted that it’s important to know what normal is to determine if your child is acting differently and to look for the warning signs. She said it is also important not to wait for warning signs to arise before having a conversation about depression or suicide.
Next, Dipti Chrastka, Clinical Director of Crisis Clinic, spoke. She said their mission is to be there and empower struggling people by connecting them to resources in the community. One program they have is Teen Link, which was founded in 1996. It is a free and anonymous service run by teens, for teens. Every day, teens can call in and talk to a trained teen for emotional support. Chrastka said they visit schools in King County to talk about depression and suicide warning sides. Afterward, students can volunteer to go through the 50-hour training to become a part of Teen Link.
“Every week, we lose two teens to suicide in the state of Washington,” Chrastka said, and that reinforces the need to talk about the issue.
The last speaker was Carolina Mooney, a Scriber Lake High School graduate. She spoke with first-hand experience with depression and suicidal thoughts. In 2012, she became involved with the Scriber Writing Program, where young adults write and share stories about mental health issues.
She read to the audience her story, “Bastard Child,” which was included in the Scriber students’ book We Are Absolutely Not Okay. She said she wrote the story to let others know they are not alone and to help her deal with her past. The Scriber Writing Program has had six books published, and she said they are now working on their seventh.
The panel then moved to a question-and-answer session with the audience. Concerned parents as well as education and resource workers asked questions about how to fix bullying and anxiety, specific warning signs and more.
A worker from Volunteers of America Western Washington noted the group offers care crisis services, which has 24/7 phone line, with a link available on their website.
One parent who has children in private school asked about the resources that private school have. Rockwood said the state’s required suicide prevention training is just for public schools so it is important to do research when choosing private schools to ensure they have mental health resources.
Before closing the forum, the panel gave their final remarks. The conclusion: Everyone has the power to help someone with mental health issues or suicidal thoughts. The first step, though, is having the conversation.
— Story and photos by Hannah Horiatis