‘You are not alone’… Schools work to stem crisis of youth suicides

Tempe Elementary school counselor Danielle Juengel comforts a student. Each of the district’s schools has a counselor and access to a psychologist in an effort to support student’s social and emotional well- being. — Photo courtesy Tempe Elementary School District

By Robyn Martinez

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“You are not alone.” That message, along with Teen Lifeline’s phone number for one who may be contemplating suicide, is on the reverse side of most middle-school student IDs this year as part of a widespread campaign by the Tempe Elementary district to stem the upsurge of youth suicides.

While the problem has taken on crisis proportions nationwide, Tempe district officials say they are unaware of any that may have occurred in their schools.

The numbers don’t lie, though. Suicide has emerged as the number-two cause of death among Arizonans 15-34 years old, according to data from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

For students who are now facing more stressors than ever before, say experts, this is a crucial issue for local schools.

“In Tempe Elementary, we realize that supporting students’ social and emotional well-being is directly connected to their ability to learn,” said Jennifer Ostrom, social, behavioral and health services coordinator. “Students need and deserve to feel safe and cared for while at school,” said Ostrom. “All

the stress that our students are under impacts their learning, behavior, social relationships and sense of well-being and safety.”

As a district, Tempe Elementary continues to determine ways to meet the social/emotional needs of students, say school officials. Trainings focused on suicide prevention are offered for counselors and psychologists throughout the year.

Additionally, each Tempe Elementary campus has a counselor on site, as well as access to a psychologist, by tapping into resources referred to as ASIST, or Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, developed by the Center for Suicide Prevention. “The ASIST training this month was very educational and helpful,” reported Danielle Juengel, a counselor at Laird Elementary School.

“There were audio/visual presentations, group discussions and opportunities to practice the skills we learned in small groups,” she said.

“It was an emotional experience; you go into the training with your own experiences and perceptions of suicide that have to be negotiated while you are learning the ASIST model. I learned a lot from this training, but overall I learned how to keep an individual at risk safe while seeking further help if necessary.”

Programs like Second Step, which teach problem- solving and self-care skills, is utilized district-wide, according to officials, and the award-winning program PBIS, or Positive Behavioral Intervention Support, encourages an affirmative atmosphere for students and helps to set them up for success.

Both programs are implemented in district classrooms. Strong, functioning intervention
teams that help identify social and academic needs of students also add support for Tempe Elementary students and staff, according to a district spokeswoman.

The goal of each program is to help promote a positive school culture, where students are encouraged to be open about their feelings and be kind and caring toward one another, officials said. Research shows people who are having thoughts of suicide feel relief when someone asks about them in a caring way. Findings also suggest that acknowledging and talking about suicide may reduce rather than increase suicidal ideation.

In addition, a theme of Choose Kindness, Change the World was adopted for this school year. Across

Tempe Elementary’s 22 schools, children are being reminded daily to look for ways to show kindness to their peers.

Juengel, the Laird counselor, notes that giving and receiving kindness can be an antidote for stress and depression that students may be experiencing.

“It is one of the few things you can do for free the benefits everyone,” Juengel said. Juengel added that it is important for

parents to seek to know and understand their student’s behaviors, and listen to them. Is their student just having a bad day or has it been going on for a while?

Suicide Warning Signs

Most at-risk youth demonstrate signs that signal when they are in the throes of suicidal thinking. Based on advisories from the Arizona Association of School Psychologists and Stanford Children’s Health, these behaviors include:

  • Unexpected decline in academics;
  • Noticable changes in eating and sleeping habits;
  • Withdrawal from family and friends;
  • Changes in behavior, appearance, thoughts and/or feelings;
  • Agitation, restlessness, distress, or panicky behavior;
  • Suicidal threats in the form of direct (“I am going to kill myself”) and indirect (“I wish I could fall asleep and never wake up again”) statements;
  • Suicide notes and plans (including online postings);
  • Prior suicidal behavior;
  • Making final arrangements (e.g., making funeral arrangements, writing a will, giving away prized possessions); and
  • Preoccupation with death.

Parents should contact their child’s school and seek professional help sooner rather than later if they notice any signs or have concerns about their student’s well-being.

“Sometimes our greatest work as educators is how we impact a child’s feelings about his/ her own self-worth and ability to achieve his/ her own goals and dreams,” social services/ health coordinator Ostrom said.

“In addition to teaching skills like goal setting, problem solving, empathy, emotional management and friendship skills, we must also ensure our staff is well prepared to engage in suicide prevention activities to keep kids safe and hopeful about their place in the world.”

Suicide is preventable. If you or someone you know is struggling, get help immediately via 911; National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK); or the Crisis Text Line (text “HOME” to 741741).



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