Some 16 percent of sixth-graders in Washington state had seriously considered suicide and 5 percent had tried to kill themselves, a 2008 statewide survey found.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Washington youth.
It’s those kinds of chilling statistics that led state education and health officials to focus on prevention strategies for youth.
The most recent program launched by the state – Look, Listen, Link – is aimed at middle-school children. The four 45-minute lessons teach students how to recognize the warning signs of suicide, then intervene and connect classmates with help.
“Absolutely, it would be good to have a program like this,” said Linda Delaney, a counselor at Sacajawea Middle School. “Kids are depressed. I think anything we can do to help in terms of prevention is good.”
The program, the first middle-level prevention model that meets federal standards, has not yet been adopted in most Spokane-area schools. It was piloted last year, and so far 45 individual schools throughout the state are using it, state officials said.
Spokane County ranks third in the state by population for people between ages 10 and 24 who attempt or commit suicide, according to a 2009 report by the Washington Department of Health. Washington’s suicide rate of 8.3 per 100,000, for the same age group, is higher than the national average of 7. That has led state education and health officials to focus on prevention.
Bonnie Ducharme, Spokane Public Schools student services coordinator, said Look, Listen, Link and a similar program for high school students – Help Every Living Person – are designed to change attitudes enough to possibly save their peers’ lives.
“The curriculum is trying to change the social norm for adolescents not to narc on their buddy,” Ducharme said. “The most important thing you can do for a friend is get an adult.”
Nancy Dean, a counselor at Bowdish Middle School in the Central Valley School District, said until programs such as Look, Listen, Link are incorporated into classes, it’s important for staff to be aware of the signs.
“We are always watching at lunch, and keep an open eye in the classroom. They are looking for students who are sad, not interested in their schoolwork, or anything out of the ordinary for a kid,” Dean said.
When kids do go to the counseling office, they reveal worries about relationships, said Delaney, the Sacajawea counselor.
“Issues with their parents, problems with their friends, sometimes it’s a boyfriend or a girlfriend,” she said. “Academics can play a role.”
Teenagers, especially middle-school age, can be overly dramatic about situations. But “it’s the kind of thing we investigate regardless. Sometimes when you talk to a kiddo you can find out they are being a bit dramatic,” said Delaney, who has been a middle-school counselor for eight years. “In any event, I call home and let the parent know that they need to be watching these things.”