Five months have passed since the last known suicides by students in the Spokane Public School district, but the conversation in some parts of the community quietly continues.
Five students, including three in a one-month span, took their lives in the 2014-15 school year, the highest number in the history of the school district.
The conversation will return to the public arena this week with a one-hour KSPS live broadcast at 7 p.m. Thursday as the opening program in the station’s 13th season of “Health Matters.” The program, featuring local experts and school officials, will focus on the circumstances that lead to suicide.
One of the panelists for the program, David Crump, the district’s director of student services, said he wants to help viewers understand that the vast majority of suicides are preventable. “Just talking about suicide is not going to encourage suicide,” Crump said. “Actually, it is an intervention.”
School district staff members hosted a series of community meetings at local schools last spring in the wake of the suicides. Three of the events drew crowds of parents, students and friends ranging from 10 to about 75. The format was the same at each one and featured experts on the school staff and representatives of nonprofit organizations.
There were family members and friends in the audience who had lost a child or young friend to suicide and their questions or comments were often emotional and sobering. Some parents expressed frustration at the limited information school officials typically provide when a suicide has been discovered. Crump cited privacy concerns and emphasized the situation at the time of the suicide is often quite fluid and confusing.
Much of the discussion at the public meetings in the spring focused on watching behavior and circumstances that can signal significant issues. Crump told the different audiences that substance abuse is second only to depression as a risk factor. “One of the stresses often cited is the endless testing,” said Staci Cornwall, who leads the crisis team for Frontier Behavioral Health. “Testing raises the tension.”
Social media, Crump said, has made Spokane a smaller community. “What happens at Shadle is quickly known elsewhere,” he said. Counselors are finding students who would rather text than talk to people.
The five adolescents who died of suicide during the school year were ages 14 to 17 and apparently did not follow any pattern. A couple of the students knew each other, but they were not close and the staff does not have reason to believe there was any suicide pact. “I know that four of the five communicated that they wanted to commit suicide,” said Christine Moore, a student services coordinator, who emphasized parents and others should take it seriously when a student expresses thoughts of suicide. Moore noted that 1 in every 8 adolescents may have depression.
Crump discussed the basics of neurology at some of the forums. “Teen brains are not yet fully formed and they are not strong at problem-solving when it comes to complex issues,” he said. Students struggle with the pressure of doing well and not disappointing their parents, he said. Cornwall said even children ages 9 to 12 have thoughts about suicide. “It’s not just a teen problem,” she said. “They don’t want to die,” Cornwall added. “They just don’t want to live.”
One outgrowth of the concern about suicide is the creation of a program called Mental Health First Aid. This eight-hour course teaches volunteer students the skills to help someone who appears to be developing a mental health problem or experiencing a personal crisis. Two of the volunteers who completed the pilot course will appear in a taped segment as part of the KSPS program on Tuesday.
Twenty-two students at North Central High School took part in the pilot course on a Saturday in April. Jill Royston, a student assistance specialist for the school district, was one of the trainers for the all-day course. Royston said she anticipates the district will sponsor similar training at other schools.
Cornwall said there are many resources available in the community to help students and their families who are struggling with issues. Unfortunately, she said, “not everyone wants help.”
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