Thoughts of suicide on rise at local schools, survey shows

For the past decade, there has been a steady rise in the number of Edmonds School District middle and high school students who have seriously considered suicide, mirroring a statewide trend.

The statistics from the 2016 Healthy Youth Survey, taken by tweens and teens in Washington state every two years, indicate that one in five high school students seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months. Reports from Edmonds School District middle schools and high schools show similar results.

For example, 19 percent of 10th graders and 22 percent of 12th graders at Mountlake Terrace High School said they have contemplated suicide, up 5 percent and 6 percent respectively from the 2014 Healthy Youth Survey.

At the middle school level, 10 percent of 8th graders at Brier Terrace Middle School said they have considered taking their life, up 4 percent from two years ago. That number was 16 percent at Madrona K-8 (up 10 percent) and 20 percent at Maplewood Cooperative School (up 12 percent).

All district schools also showed a rise in the number of students saying that they had experienced “depressive feelings.” That was reported by a third or more of middle and high school students districtwide.

Local public health and school administrators say that they can’t point to a single specific cause for the increase in serious suicidal thoughts, but they agree that one of the likely factors is social media, which has an around-the-clock presence in the lives of many students.

“I always remark that I’m glad that I didn’t have Facebook or social media when I was in high school or college,” said Snohomish County Health District Interim Interim Administrator Jeff Ketchel, who included a report on the Healthy Youth Survey results during a health district presentation to the Edmonds City Council last week.

“I don’t know how the youth today cope with that 24/7,” Ketchel added. “When I went home, I was shut off from the world and it was a nice break.”

JoAnna Rockwood, a school psychologist and behavioral specialist at Alderwood Middle School in Lynnwood, cautioned that while social media plays a role, it is “only one part of a situation that has many contributing factors.”

Rockwood was the driving force behind efforts to implement a suicide prevention program known as SOS (Signs of Suicide Prevention) at all of the Edmonds School District’s K-8, middle and high schools two years ago.

It all started when Rockwood was serving as a school psychologist for both Lynnwood High School and Alderwood Middle, and attended a conference in spring 2013. That was a year before the school shootings at Marysville-Pilchuck High School, which left five students dead, including the 15-year-old shooter.

During the conference, Rockwood learned about the research-based SOS program and shared that information with district administrators, who suggested that she develop a pilot program for the district. The program was piloted at Alderwood Middle School for both 7th and 8th grades during the 2013-14 school, then implemented at the school in 2014-15.

In spring 2015, the board unanimously agreed to use the program districtwide for the 2015-16 school year in all secondary schools.

The Signs of Suicide program is a video-based curriculum mainly taught through health classes, in coordination with school counselors. All students are screened after the lessons to provide follow-up support; in particular, students are asked “if you would like to talk about concerns you have for yourself or a friend,” Rockwood explained. “It’s a way to screen every kid and touch base with every kid.”

Followup is provided by school counselors and other support staff.within 24 hours of the student’s initial request. At Rockwood’s school, Alderwood Middle, the program is conducted once a year for all seventh and eighth graders, right before winter break.

“School counselors clear their calendars during the weeks of the program to ensure they can speak with every student who has indicated they want to do so,” Rockwood said, adding that typically three to four students per class of 25 indicate a need for follow-up support.

“In some cases it is kids who mistakenly checked the wrong box but in most cases it is a student who is concerned about a friend,” she said. “Through the screening process we are catching more students who are thinking about suicide. It catches students who don’t fit a typical profile, like your high-achieving and very successful students.”

The SOS program also has a parent component piece and staff training piece, she added. “What the kids are told is any adult in this building is a trusted adult they can report to,” Rockwood said, so staff training is critical.

The goal is to prevent students from feeling isolated and alone. The SOS program “really builds a sense of ‘we’re in this together. We have to watch out for each other,'” Rockwood said.

The district has also placed a focus on crisis response to support students and educators in the aftermath of a crisis. Following the Marysville-Pilchuck High School shootings in October 2014, the Edmonds School District sent about two dozen members of its crisis response team (otherwise known as the PREPARE Team) to assist high school and middle school staff and students in coping with the aftermath of the tragedy, Rockwood said.

Edmonds was one of the only local school districts that had a crisis response team that was trained and large enough to provide immediate support, she added.

After visiting Marysville-Pilchuck High School following the school shootings and realizing the role that “severe mental health issues” played in that situation, it was clear to district officials that “we really need to be addressing this earlier,” Rockwood said.

So the Edmonds School District is now piloting among 5th and 6th graders in select schools a program called Riding the Waves, a coping strategies curriculum that Rockwood said is based on “trying to get a root of what’s behind increases in depressive feelings, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.” Results of that program will be reviewed this summer with the possibility of full implementation in the 2017-18 school year.

The district has also formed a special social/emotional curriculum committee to research, pilot and organize implementation of a social emotional curriculum and classroom training even earlier — for grades K-3.

The district is now is writing a district suicide prevention, intervention and post-intervention policy that is in its very last stages of revision. Once completed, Edmonds will have its own policy that will be implemented districtwide next fall. “It helps to get employees on the same page, assessing suicide risk factors, how to assess, how to identify, and what to do once we’ve identified,” Rockwood said. “And what do we do if a student who has attempted suicide and then returns to school.”

The 2016 Healthy Youth Survey also reported the number of students who said they had made a suicide plan as well as those who said they actually attempted suicide. At Edmonds-Woodway, for example, those numbers were 13 percent and 9 percent respectively. For Meadowdale, they were 14 percent and 6 percent.

(You can see the results of all survey questions — which cover a range of health behaviors — for all district middle and high schools here.)

Typically, Rockwood said, if a student attempts suicide, 911 emergency response is called and the student is taken to a nearby hospital, where he or she is held for three days. Hospital officials then come up with re-entry plan with the goal of identifying “what your triggers are, what your coping mechanisms are, what accommodations might the students need and whom to turn to in a crisis,” she said.

School officials will meet with the student before he or she comes back to school, but the reality is that more often than not, when that student returns, “he couldn’t even remember his re-entry plan, or doesn’t have one,” Rockwood said. “It’s important to make sure everybody is on same page and all students are receiving the needed supports when returning back to school.”

A bill passed by the Washington State Legislature requires that all school psychologists, school counselors, school social workers and school nurses have three hours of suicide prevention training. Edmonds is one of only school districts statewide that provides approved training to its employees free of charge. The district is opening up that training to other districts during an event set for June 3. You can learn more about that here.

Rockwood stressed that while social media and cell phones use among teens and preteens — including related cyberbullying — is one factor behind the increase in depressive and suicidal thoughts among both teens and preteens, it’s not the only factor. She also noted that district has a sexting and cyberbullying presentation that school counselors provide to students.

One thing Rockwood said she learned during a recent training: “Suicide is seen as a solution for the person who is thinking of it. It’s only a problem for us — the people who care for the person. It makes their pain go away. It’s our job to provide resources for students to see there are other options.”

She also said it’s important not to glamorize suicide, as that may encourage students to attempt it. That’s also why mental health professionals prefer to describe a suicidal act as “death by suicide” rather than stating someone “committed suicide,” she said.

So what should parents or other trusted adults in the lives of teens or preteens do to address suicide?

For starters, talk with your kids about the issue, Rockwood said. “The biggest piece of advice is to have that ongoing conversation and to know that talking about suicide or depression doesn’t make it occur,” Rockwood said. She pointed to a new Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” — popular among teens — which focuses on the reasons why a teenage girl committed suicide.

The series has raised concerns among school psychologists nationwide who say it glamorizes suicide. If your teen is watching the series or has friends who are, use it as an opportunity “to have a conversation with them,” Rockwood said.

“Helping them navigate the mental health challenges of being an adolescent is as just as important as teaching them to brush their teeth,” Rockwood said. While parents have a tendency to disengage somewhat from their children as they get older, “they still need you there to help them navigate,” she said.

“By shedding light on it (suicide) and educating and talking about it is how we do un-stigmatize it.”

Rockwood also provided a list of suicide prevention resources and they are at this link.

— By Teresa Wippel

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