Teen Suicide Prevention Officials Sound Alarm

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A survey conducted during the 2016-17 school year found that around one in 12, or 8.2 percent, of Kentucky’s high-school sophomores said they had attempted suicide at least once in the past 12 months.

While this number is lower in Kentucky than the national average of 9.4 percent, it has still raised alarm among those leading the charge against suicide — the second-leading cause of death among Kentucky’s teens and young adults and the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States — on the state and local level.

“It’s a very serious issue,” said Dr. Julie Cerel, a psychologist and professor at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work and president of the American Association of Suicidology.

And despite its prominence, the issue is one that has been studied relatively little. The “Kentucky Incentives for Prevention” survey, which is filled out by the state’s 10th-graders every two years, has only been recording suicide data since 2014, when the rate of reported attempts in the past year was 8 percent in the state and 8.6 nationwide.

The survey did not publish Franklin County-specific data, but it did yield results from the “Bluegrass” region, which includes most of Central Kentucky, excluding Fayette County, which declined to participate. 8.2 percent of Bluegrass region students answered that they had attempted suicide in the last year.

While Cerel emphasizes that potential causes for this behavior are never clear-cut, claiming that there is never one factor that leads to an attempt, she did cite a study that said that teens who had attempted suicide self-reported that the most common factor in their decision was a recent break-up, regardless of the length of the relationships. Although parents may feel their adolescent is inflating the importance of the event she warns against parents underselling its impact.

“If a teen is stressed or feels like something has happened and they’re never going to get over it, the adult response shouldn’t be, ‘Oh, that’s nothing, you’re going to grow up and find somebody else,’” she said. “The response probably should be, ‘I understand that this feels like the worst thing ever; let’s figure out a way to get you some help.’”

Aside from a recent break-up or loss, Cerel — along with Frankfort psychologist Dr. Vicki Hayes — also noted that there are warning signs that prevention specialists, parents and peers can watch for in adolescents.

“One of the biggest behavioral things you want to watch for as a parent is abrupt change in a child’s behavior,” Hayes said. “…  Pay a lot of attention to that and try to find out what’s going on. If they’re saying anything morbid or that sounds suicidal, don’t let that ride. Don’t ever call a bluff or think that they don’t mean it. It’s better to err on the side of caution.”

But prevention for such behavior isn’t only employed by parents. School districts take pains to identify and service at-risk students through a variety of in-school programs and collaboration with outside resources.

At Frankfort Independent Schools, social worker Marci Fritts coordinates services for students at Second Street School and Frankfort High School — both of which are serviced by school therapists through a partnership with the Kentucky Counseling Center.

“We have clinical therapists working with all of our identified students that (we identified) either through talking with parents, through collaboration with teachers, through referral in school, and approaching guardians and parents about services that potentially would benefit the student …,” Fritts said. “We have two full-time therapists at Second Street School, and we have a therapist on-site at the high school.”

Fritts highlighted research that shows how untreated trauma experienced at an early age can negatively impact a person for years to come, making intervention at school all the more important. The school system also partners with Operation Making a Change (OMAC), a program designed to provide young males with mentorship, and Fritts heads her own program called “My Life, My Choice,” a prevention-based program that all FIS female sophomores will go through.

The State Journal reached out multiple times to both Franklin County public high school psychologists but did not receive a response by press time.

A common problem in schools that is often brought to the fore in relation to suicide is bullying. According to Hayes, bullying is a particularly severe issue in the area. While primarily an adult psychologist, she says that a number of her clients experienced bullying earlier in life, and that those with children opine about current bullying in the local schools.

“There are very few people who have not been bullied. I think there’s a huge bullying problem in Franklin County, and I’m concerned about it — all the schools,” Hayes said. “I don’t think any of them are doing enough to stop the bullying here in this particular county.”

According to Kentucky district report cards, the 735-student FIS reported 47 events of harassment while the 6,131-student FCPS reported 312 events in the 2015-2016 school year.

One factor that both Hayes and Cerel pointed out as a potential catalyst for bullying, as well as feelings of hopelessness, was the prevalence of social media. It’s particularly easy, Cerel said, for bullying to occur over anonymous apps — the latest being Sarahah, which was originally meant to provide employers with unfiltered feedback from their employees.

But Cerel was quick to point out that social media can be a boon as well, particularly for LGBTQ students who may not have an in-person support network.

And creating that atmosphere in school for students of all sexualities, genders or races is imperative in preventing harmful behavior. The state currently requires all middle and high school students to receive some form of suicide prevention education by Sep. 1, and for teachers to receive at least two hours of training. The state is also rolling out a “Sources of Strength” peer-led prevention program this year.

The least helpful thing that schools can do, Cerel says, is for schools to be reticent to talk about mental health concerns, or to not have adequate resources. If students don’t know that help is available, they will be more likely to feel helpless.

But other forms of exposure to these issues could have adverse effects. Of particular note recently has been the popular Netflix television series “13 Reasons Why,” which depicts the aftermath of a teenage girl’s suicide. The book from which the series originated was banned from nearby Anderson County Middle School in June.

On the issue, Hayes referenced a study done on adolescents in the 1980s who watched TV movies depicting suicide.

“A lot of people at the time thought that the more open you were and the more it was on TV thought that the [suicide] rate would go down because it would open a conversation,” Hayes said. “No, what it did was provide role modeling for kids that were probably already thinking about it. You have beautiful actors, they were kids that you might actually want to emulate.”

Cerel referenced a recent study done that showed Google searches for suicide methods increased by as much as 28 percent in the two weeks following the release of “13 Reasons Why.”

But regardless of how adolescents get exposed to suicide, all sides agree that the recent survey reflects a problem that needs to be addressed.

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Source : http://www.state-journal.com/2017/08/12/teen-suicide-prevention-officials-sound-alarm/

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