Five teen suicides this school year – including three in the past month – have jolted the community. It’s the highest number in the history of Spokane Public Schools, prompting parents, students and community members to ask what they can do to help.
“There’s an increased need. I see the whole community hurting,” said Sabrina Votava, Spokane’s Youth Suicide Prevention Program field coordinator. “It’s affected all the schools, even districts outside of Spokane.”
There have been other teen suicides in Spokane County; however, officials don’t have a firm count since the start of the year.
Suicide among teens and young adults averages about 1 death every six weeks, according to Spokane Regional Health District records of 15- to 24-year-olds from 2005 to 2009.
The school district is holding community forums every week through June to talk to anyone interested in learning about available suicide prevention resources and information to stop what some consider a public health crisis. Mental health experts from Frontier Behavioral Health, Children’s Home Society, Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and Native Project are joining district officials to help.
“The proximity of the suicides is so concerning,” said Superintendent Shelley Redinger. “We are trying to make sure the forums happen at high schools and inviting middle school feeders. We are trying to make sure people know where to find resources and support.”
None of the suicides happened at school. There are no common threads in socio-economic backgrounds, students were involved in activities and bullying does not appear to be a factor. District officials have found no “pattern or profile” as to why these four boys and a girl took their own lives.
“If we could find that, we could come up with some intervention,” said David Crump, the district’s mental health director. Youth are in school for six or seven hours of a 24-hour day, so the district has little control over what’s happening outside of school. “Stopping this is going to take all of us. We want to get the kids talking with the people that can help them.”
After each suicide, district officials combed through students’ social media sites to look for signs of bullying and found none. They also looked for those students’ closest friends so someone could reach out to them about counseling.
“The human connection is important for kids who have lost friends,” Crump said. “Not everyone wants to come in and talk, so if you approach them it’s more comfortable.”
The forums at Shadle Park and North Central have revealed that “adults aren’t comfortable talking about suicide, but kids are talking about it,” he said. “Suicide is part of the culture our kids are growing up in. If you keep quiet about it, that just pushes it to the underground. Where are they going to get their information?”
The community sessions are to make sure the information children and adults are receiving is correct (and) to offer tips on signs of depression, suicidal behavior and start a conversation, Votava said. “What can we do to break down the stigma around suicide? How can we promote communication among the family, especially between parents and children?”
North Central High School is starting a student-led pilot program about signs and symptoms of suicide. Mental Health First Aid is an 8-hour training program, said Principal Steve Fisk. Recruitment is underway for the first 30 students.
“Kids are the front line on this challenge,” he said.
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