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Spike In Teen Suicides Pushes Local Schools To Take A Deep Dive On Emotional Health

In Nevada County, an unfortunate spike in youth suicides has prompted school districts to reevaluate how they support kids. The result is a handful of new emotional health programs for preschoolers through high schoolers. 

"There's a behavioral specialist now on staff and so we're one of the pilot schools to do preschool and have him come in and help. It's really great."

Karen Mazur-Lowe works at Discovery Preschool, part of the Truckee-Tahoe District's early learning program. The district has been incorporating social and emotional learning in elementary, middle and high schools for years, but just expanded to preschools in 2014.

The idea is to address what Corine Harvey, the district's executive director of student services, calls “behavioral skills gaps."

"Just like you explicitly teach reading, you're explicitly teaching social and emotional conduct and behavior. How you interact with each other, how you're expected to behave in this big social environment that we call school. Not everyone comes in with that skill set defined."

Harvey says one of the benefits of these programs is the fact that a majority of students in the district now say they have a trusted adult at school they can go to with any problem. But, she admits it can take a while to sink in, and Truckee middle schooler Hana backs that up. A smart kid, she says she’s friends with lots of different types of people, but some of her pals are outsiders and they get bullied. That hasn’t changed just because they’re learning anti-bullying strategies at school.

"I gotta say, what I’ve seen? They don’t really do anything from it. I think the people who stood up to other people, they would use it, and the bullies would just say, 'Oh yeah, so what are you gonna do? Are you gonna tell on me?' And then just tease them.”

Still, Hana says she can see how the lessons might be useful in the future. "I think it's gonna be a good tool for life, like later on in high school when drama happens."

To help deal with that high school drama, the district hosts  an annual Challenge Day, during which students do community building exercises and talk about empathy and ways to combat bullying. Programs like these took on new significance two years ago. When three Truckee teens committed suicide within a few months of each other, it rocked the small community of 16,000.

Those losses prompted the addition of more mental health services at local schools, including a voluntary emotional health screening aimed at 9th graders.

"Nationally, the highest rate of suicidal ideation occurs in 8th graders,” says Jen Rhi Winders, who co-founded What's Up Wellness Checkswith therapist Shellee Sepko in 2011. “And the highest rate of suicide completion actually occurs in 10th graders. So to really catch those kids when they’re in the midst of that transition seemed pretty critical for us.”

The pair conduct  screenings in seven Nevada County public high schools. Based on Columbia University's Teen Screen, What's Up evaluates stress and anxiety levels, coping skills, and other markers of emotional health. Sepko says about 30% of those screened need more support.

“I remember when we first started, what really struck me was just how many kids are struggling with stress with school and grades, which was just so different from my experience,” Sepko says. “But it seems to be an ongoing thing, a lot of kids are just really stressed out about grades and classes, even at a young age, in the early years of high school.”

“Yeah, some students are saying that they’re still held to these really high standards, yet they’re acutely aware of all the messes around them,” Winders adds. “Hearing how hard it is now to get into a college, hearing how once you have a degree you still can’t find a job. So those are stressors that have shifted a little bit over the years for teens.”

Winders says kids also struggle with over-stimulation, so What’s Up has started mindfulness groups to teach kids how to slow down and tune the world out when they need to. The Truckee school district also has peer and community programs to help people spot and respond to suicide warning signs. 

"You might see the signs and you're worried, but it's such a scary topic you don't dare ask,” Harvey says. “You don't dare say, 'Have you ever thought about hurting yourself?  Has that idea ever popped into your head?' You know, we don't want to ask that because we're afraid of the answer and what to do with it."

Asking those kinds of questions is exactly what parents, teachers and friends should be doing, according to the What’s Up team.

"We have too many students to count who say things to us like, 'Hey, I’ve never had anybody ask me these questions before,' or 'I’ve never told anybody about this before,'” Winders says. “So even as we are de-stigmatizing mental health, we still are not necessarily having those important conversations with our teens."

"Yeah, and the kids actually appreciate it,” Sepko says. “Because students, they open up to us so much. More than I ever imagined they would. You know, given that we’re a couple of adults and they come in and we’re like, 'Hello, there’s a screen,' and they’re like, 'Who are these people?' But, you know, I think that they really do want to talk about these issues.

The good news? Nevada County's teen suicide rate has dropped. Still, like many rural counties in California and Nevada, its overall rate -- 19 suicides for every 100,000 people-- remains close to double the California state average of 10. Therapists say while we’ve made progress on de-stigmatizing mental health, there’s still a lot more work to do.

Amy Westervelt is a former contributor at KUNR Public Radio.
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