The tragic loss of the lives of nine young people in the East Valley to suicide in the last several weeks has led to a concerted effort to educate parents and the community on prevention.
A town hall meeting last month regarding the spate of suicides drew a crowd of more than 500. The nine teens between the ages of 12 to 18 who have chosen to end their lives since the start of the school year has led to an outpouring of concern. This time, none of those who died by suicide lived within Wrangler’s boundaries, but that didn’t stop area parents and educators from taking action, including the mother of a Corona student who took his life last year.
A new spark of awareness was lit and people are talking about the tragedy—lots of people, according to Katey McPherson, executive director of the Gurian Institute, an organization dedicated to educational improvements, which is based in Chandler.
As a long-time educator and former principal in the Valley, she is well networked in educational circles; so, she personally fields questions from teachers, parents, administrators, and even elected officials.
“We need to keep the conversation going because I am learning there are many people who don’t know where to turn when it comes to getting help with their kids’ mental health issue,” said McPherson.
The Tempe Union High School District reached out to McPherson to pro-actively educate their families and employees. The district already has a section of their website devoted to mental-health issues, including social-service resources and organizations that offer individual’s counseling.
“The TUHSD is very supportive in exploring new ways to help the community; and, we are working together to produce another town hall for all the schools in the district, which also includes a invitation to any families who attend Kyrene and Tempe Elementary schools,” said McPherson.
The second town hall is planned for Monday, Nov. 6 at the Desert Vista High School, 16440 S. 32nd St., Phoenix. Entitled, “#SOS: Turning Distress into Success” the public event will offer attendees ways to support students and discuss how to best connect with them.
The doors will open at 5:30 p.m. so that families can visit tables with information from behavioral health resources in the Valley. The keynote speaker begins at 6:30 p.m. and will be Dr. Glenn “Max” McGee, the retired superintendent of the Palo Alto Unified School District in California. A question and answer period follows with members of local social-service organizations.
“Among the questions we will address is a child’s mental health a school issue, a parental responsibility or both,” said McPherson.
“Earlier in the day, we are hosting a roundtable discussion and study session for educators and school counselors. This will be facilitated by Dr. McGee, Dr. Baca from TUHSD and Dr. Vesely from Kyrene.”
State legislation may mandate suicide prevention education in schools
One initiative The Gurian Institute encourages is for communities to develop partnerships between schools, parent and legislators. McPherson is in the fledging stage of an Arizona-based initiative and had a meeting with state representative Mitzi Epstein which looks promising, she reports.
The goal of any legislation would be to fund suicide prevention classes for teachers and also to include information in all school’s curriculums.
McPherson urged the public to point out to lawmakers and funding organizations that mental health issues are debilitating—they impact school budgets, grades, test scores, discipline systems, and every other marker of success than physical cuts and scrapes, scuffles and disagreements, and even physical bullying.
The effort to prevent suicide will continue to become more visible statewide, if McPherson has her way in succeeding with new legislation. She is being assisted in the effort by Lori Warnock, a teacher with 26 years of experience, and the mother of Mitchell, who was a senior at Corona when he committed suicide.
“Katey and I connected through the group called Save Our Students, which was created by Christina Nguyen and other mothers in the East Valley who are concerned by the rash of suicides in the area,” said Warnock.
“I joined the group and spoke to the fact that my son, Mitch, had passed by suicide and I had been attending TUHSD board meetings to show that I was still present and that our small group of concerned parents and advocates in Tempe were still waiting for teachers to be trained on how to identify students who are potentially at risk.”
Warnock said she was frustrated by the lack of suicide prevention training available for teachers.
“I want that rectified. Children are literally dying, while others are suffering. Our students throughout the Valley are well-connected via sporting events, clubs, and, of course, on social media.
“We are just at the beginning stages of this work and we continue to meet within our various school districts about training and student support within schools. Students are a captive audience within our schools and we have a prime opportunity and obligation to inform and assist them,” said Warnock.
She met with McPherson in August and gave her the history of her son, who was a teammate of Marcus Wheeler, another Corona student whose life ended by suicide on the school’s campus in 2015.
She has already researched laws in the 25 states which have mandated suicide prevention education in schools.
“Since suicide among teens has soared 81 percent since 2009, we wanted to develop a way for legislation in Arizona,” said Warnock.
“We also are setting up meetings with other state legislators, as well, to express our concerns and receive their feedback.
“We are persistent and we are mothers—we will not rest until that is acknowledged and systemic change occurs for not only East Valley students but every student in Arizona,” concluded Warnock.