Suicide is the second-leading cause of deaths among youth ages 10 to 24. All area school districts are doing something about it.
In accordance with a new California law, beginning this year, schools that give out identification cards to students in seventh grade and higher will have the numbers for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Crisis Text Line. Schools can also choose to add local crisis hotline numbers.
“We sent an email about the changes for the ID cards to all of the teachers and staff,” said Gil Ogden, director of student services at Turlock Union School District. TUSD also posted information about the new IDs on its website and its Facebook page.
“I think it’s awesome. It’s there to help the kids out,” said Lupe Camarena. He is parent of an eighth-grade girl at Glick Middle School. Camarena was practicing softball Thursday with his daughter at Modesto High.
“I think it’s a good idea because if a student is feeling down or getting bullied, they have a place to go,” said incoming freshman Sandra Montecillo, while waiting for volleyball tryouts at Modesto High.
Sandra’s sentiments were echoed by other future team athletes at volleyball and track-and-field tryouts. No students identified a downside to having the information.
However, Ogden was surprised to get negative responses from some parents. He said that many in the public seemed unaware of the new requirement. A few callers and social media postings were unhappy about the ID changes because they were afraid discussing suicide would make kids think about it.
“It’s a common misconception that talking about suicide gives kids the idea,” said Ogden. “That’s not the case.”
He said actually talking about suicide may be preventive because it can lead to a child getting help.
“Ask them directly,” advised Ogden to parents who suspect their child is depressed or considering suicide.
Even if the kids won’t talk to them, Ogden encouraged concerned parents to contact their doctor or their child’s school to find help. Ogden is a licensed educational psychologist and he said that TUSD works closely with community mental health programs to find resources for the students.
A steady rise in depression
Nationwide, more than 6,200 teens took their own lives in 2017. In Stanislaus County, 56 people of all ages died from suicide in 2017.
Suicide rates, as well as anxiety and depression, have steadily risen among adolescents since 2000, according to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention. For females 15-24, the rate of suicide deaths nearly doubled from 2000 to 2016 from 3 to 5.4 per 100,000 people. The suicide rate for males in the same age group during that time increased from 17 to 20.5 per 100,000 people. Historically, compared to females, males of all ages have higher suicide death rates.
TUSD has about 14,000 students and approximately 6,000 are in grades 7-12. The district doesn’t publicly report the number of suicide attempts or deaths. However, Ogden said that in the past two to three years, the district has seen an increase in students with mental health problems, including suicidal thoughts, consistent with the national data.
He added that another disturbing trend is the rise in primary school students expressing the wish to die. In addition to the middle and high school support services, TUSD has three licensed counselors dedicated to the elementary schools.
Schools are on the front line of the mental health epidemic. With the new school year, they’re gearing up to prevent, identify and help their students.
All of the area school districts are complying with the new ID law. They are also implementing mental health training for teachers, staff and administrators.
Ceres Unified School District is providing new IDs with the suicide lifeline information. The district offers resources for teachers, parents and students, including a suicide prevention toolkit.
“Mental health issues are in our scope of practice,” said Aurora Licudine, public health nurse and chairperson of school nurses for Modesto City Schools. As part of back-to-school orientation, the school nurses are having additional training in mental health first aid.
Work being done at SCOE
“Stanislaus County Office of Education offers free training to county school districts, called Question, Persuade, Refer,” said Vicki Bauman, director of prevention services. If a child seems distressed, then Question them, next Persuade them to seek help such as walking with them to school counselor, and then Refer them to a mental health professional. QPR is mental health’s parallel to CPR — that is, prompt help to save a life.
“QPR is a training for all school personnel, custodians, cafeteria workers, teachers, bus drivers, everyone,” said Bauman, “Because anyone can notice if a child is struggling.” Bauman said nearly all of the county school districts have completed the training.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The Crisis Text Line instructions are text RENEW to 741741.
The Stanislaus County crisis line is 209-558-4600 and help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and they have Spanish language capabilities.
This story was produced with financial support from The Stanislaus County Office of Education and the Stanislaus Community Foundation, along with the GroundTruth Project’s Report for America initiative. The Modesto Bee maintains full editorial control of this work.