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Shawn Vestal: Students may be most important actors in preventing teen suicide

They were in lockdown when they heard.

Junior Nick Heimbigner was in his English class at North Central High. Hope Henning was in freshman biology. Throughout the school – and schools all around the region – classroom doors were locked, shades drawn, lights dimmed.

“The uncertainty was really the worst part,” said Henning, 14. “We didn’t know if anyone died, or was in the hospital, or if the shooter died … ”

It was the morning of Sept. 13. A 15-year-old boy had shot his classmates at Freeman High, killing one and injuring three. What happened there that day is now well-known, much-discussed, highly public.

But the students at North Central were dealing with another tragedy that day, one that would play out much more quietly, with little public discussion or information. A fellow student had taken his own life, the third NC student to have committed suicide in the previous five months.

“It was a brutal day,” said Jill Royston, a student assistance specialist at NC.

What little information students had in those early hours was supplemented by what they could learn from each other through social media, through conversations and texts, through the network of gossip and whispering and rumor and speculation that blazes through closed populations when official information is scarce.

Now the students and administrators at NC are harnessing that same dynamic – the power of students talking to students – in a new suicide-prevention effort. Schools and school districts have been working on prevention for quite a while; the district has crisis teams that help students and staffers cope with tragedies; it has programs intended to help teachers and staff recognize warning signs and intervene with kids in trouble; and it has recently started an annual community forum on suicide prevention.

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What makes the NC effort distinct is the attempt to put more tools of prevention directly into the hands of students – to create a kind of suicide-prevention corps within the student body. At the heart of the effort is a simple truth: The better the students know each other, the better able they are to recognize the signs when someone’s in trouble.

It culminated with the school’s One Tribe Day on Friday; students participated in a range of activities, developed and led in part by other students, intended to strengthen the relationships among their peers and develop some skills for recognizing problems and helping each other. The day started at an assembly with a surprise guest – former Gonzaga basketball star and NBA player Ronny Turiaf.

“Really the idea is that this does start with the students, and we’re cultivating student connections,” Heimbigner said. “Ultimately when students have an issue, they don’t go to the staff. They go to their friends.”

The North Central program is just one of several student efforts in local high schools to focus on mental health and suicide prevention. Chris Moore, who oversees suicide-prevention efforts for Spokane Public Schools, noted that there are similar groups at Rogers, Shadle Park and Lewis and Clark high schools.

Moore compared it to the Parkland students taking on the issue of gun violence and school safety.

“Kids are seeing that need and responding to it,” she said.

‘Kids understand’

In 2016, state health officials asked teenagers in Spokane County whom they would turn to if they were feeling sad, hopeless or suicidal.

Most said a friend, sibling or cousin – 51 percent.

Just over a third said their parents.

About 12 percent said their teachers.

Several of the students involved in planning the One Tribe Day said their peers may not want to approach an adult, or may not feel they have an adult they can approach – or may just be more inclined to be open with friends.

“Adults maybe don’t really remember in detail what it’s like to be a kid,” Moore said. “Kids understand. When they talk about how stressful life is, students get it.”

Moore said that in the past several years, the number of students attempting suicide and committing suicide has risen significantly.

While there aren’t concrete numbers for attempts, she said, “We have attempts almost weekly. The hospital is really a revolving door with our youths having suicidal ideation.”

Suicides have been rising across all demographics nationwide for several years. A federal data analysis in 2016 found that the rate of suicides nationally had reached a 30-year peak, including sharp increases among middle-aged men and women.

From 2007 to 2015, the suicide rate for teen girls doubled, and for teen boys it rose 30 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2015, 14 boys per 100,000 committed suicide, and the rate was 5 per 100,000 for girls.

The Washington Department of Health’s Healthy Youth Survey also showed that nearly 1 in 5 Spokane County teenagers had considered suicide in 2016, a figure that has risen slightly over the past decade. Thirty-four percent of 10th-graders reported feeling sad or hopeless.

The percentage of Spokane County teens who seriously consider suicide is going up – from 14 percent in 2006 to 19 percent in 2016. A large majority of those kids had made a specific plan; 8 percent attempted to kill themselves.

“Even if a person does not complete but they attempt, it still affects everybody around them,” said Christie Toribara, a Spokane woman who lost her teenage son to suicide in 1995 and formed a nonprofit devoted to suicide prevention. “It really brings up emotions that are very raw, very intense.”

‘It’s everywhere’

Suicides can have a particularly intense effect in school communities, particularly when more than one occurs. Such clusters are not at all uncommon, which is one of the reasons that officials worry about the “contagion” or copycat effect.

In the 2014-15 school year, five students in the Spokane Public School system took their own lives. That was the most in its history. So far this year, four students in the district have committed suicide, though that figure includes two incidents from the summer and one involving a recent graduate still strongly connected to his school community.

Experts say that teens struggle with depression and anxiety more than in years past; some point to increased access to technology and the ubiquity of smartphones and social media. Frequently, the strategies emphasized for identifying and helping kids in trouble boil down to trying to build more connections among people – having conversations, listening to others, including the excluded, getting off phones and into more direct interactions.

For the students and adults involved in One Tribe Day, there was a pronounced effort to shift the emphasis away from adults talking to kids – away from panels and symposia – and toward helping the students learn how to help each other.

A big part of that is opening up frank conversations about a subject that is shrouded in taboos and sensitivities. We often don’t talk the simplest specifics or the biggest, broadest emotional ramifications.

“A lot of people still don’t want to talk about it,” said Courtney Lord, an NC senior. “But if you want something to happen, you can’t say, ‘OK, let’s not talk about it.’ ”

And yet, it’s a mistake to think it’s not something young people – even as young as elementary school – are already aware of.

“Kids are talking about it,” Moore said. “It’s in music. It’s in movies. ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ is doing a second season. It’s in TV shows. It’s everywhere.”

Still, one of the primary social responses teens hear from adults is silence. Compared with a school shooting, for example, there is often little or no public information about suicides. They aren’t typically covered in the media, unless the people are very well-known or they carry out the act in a public way. We avoid discussing specifics, in part to protect families, in part to avoid sparking copycats, in part out of an abiding sense of shame and stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide.

Adults often avoid difficult, concrete conversations about suicide with children because it feels too heavy, too challenging, too mature a subject for them. The paradoxical fact is that it might be – but it’s a part of their lives regardless.

Henning, for example, said that by the time she entered high school this year, she’d already talked to several friends who were having suicidal thoughts. Friends who told her, “I’m desperate. I’m feeling really stressed. I feel like I want to kill myself. And I don’t know what to do.”

Henning learned about another suicide prevention effort at NC, called Igniting Hope, and got involved because she wanted to understand what she should do in those situations.

“I really wanted to learn more about how to help my friends,” she said.

‘They need to be listening’

In March 2015, a Shadle Park student climbed to the peaked roof of St. Charles Catholic Church and leaped to his death. Skip Bonuccelli, a longtime area educator and school administrator who was then the principal at St. Charles school, witnessed the event and said he’ll never forget it.

“To this day, I asked myself if there was something else I could have done,” he said.

He remembers the day afterward, when a large group of the young man’s friends came to the church. What they wanted to do that day, standing with Bonuccelli on the lawn in front of the church, was talk about it. Ask questions. Share their memories. Wonder about the hows and whys.

“That was pretty powerful, watching these kids deal with an issue such as that,” Bonuccelli said.

Toribora lost her 17-year-old son, Craig, to suicide in 1995, and has since devoted herself to her nonprofit SMILE Foundation – Students Mastering Important Life Skills Education. She recalls that after her son’s death, some of his fellow students were frustrated about the nature of the one-way conversations that followed.

“They need to be listening to the students, not talking down to them,” she said.

Like many people who work in suicide prevention, Toribora focuses on helping people learn how to recognize when another person is feeling hopeless – not just down or depressed, but feeling desperately without options.

She said schools and community organizations have engaged in many worthwhile efforts to combat suicide, but they’re often undertaken in the immediate aftermath of a suicide or several suicides – and the focus tends to eventually fade.

“It needs to be ongoing,” she said. “Just like you have cancer education, HIV education, suicide education has to be ongoing also.”

Moore said that has begun happening in Spokane schools.

“It’s here, and it’s here to stay, and I think it’s a new norm,” she said. “We have to pull together as a community.”

‘Always someone to help’

In the wake of last year’s suicides, people at North Central were asking themselves the questions that people always ask in the wake of a suicide: Why did it happen? Was there something we could have done? Is there something we can do now?

“It made me think, ‘Holy crap, how do I do my job better?’ ” said Royston, who formerly ran the student wellness center at Gonzaga University. “We don’t want to lose another …. We don’t want to lose another community member to this thing.”

Assistant Principal Wendy Bromley said North Central has for years been working on suicide prevention in many ways: efforts built around staff training, a school crisis team, and identifying and keeping an eye on students exhibiting warning signs.

The recent spate of suicides brought home the need to do more, and to have those efforts come from students.

“Anything that’s going to be really effective – it’s got to come from the kids,” she said.

Heimbigner said he and some of his friends sought ways to take action in the aftermath of that suicide. At the same time, Principal Steve Fisk and the administration asked some of its leadership students to come up with strategies for responding as a school community, and identifying ways to help.

The result was an effort among administrators and key student leaders at the school to brainstorm, develop and plan the One Tribe Day. On Friday, Turiaf’s appearance kicked things off. He talked about his path to the NBA, some of the struggles he had along the way, and the importance of reaching out to others when you need to. At one point, he handed his 2012 NBA championship ring, which he won as a member of the Miami Heat, to students and let them ogle and photograph it while he talked.

“There’s always someone to help,” he said. “There is always someone willing to listen to what you’re going through.”

One of the student leaders was senior Kailey Brown. She used to attend Shadle Park, where there were two suicides her sophomore year, she said.

“It was just the real world, in your face,” she said. “I was not prepared for that at all.”

Before that, when she was in middle school, she knew a boy who had attempted to take his life. When she and others approached adults to let them know, it made him angry – but it might have saved him, too. She transferred from Shadle Park to North Central in her junior year, and she knew two of the students who committed suicide, including the boy who did so that day last year when everyone was in lockdown.

“I was like, that’s enough,” she said.

She and the other student leaders hope One Tribe Day becomes an annual event.

“Hopefully, this will make a lasting impact,” Heimbigner said. “I would love to see it repeated in future years.”

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