Schools focus on problem of teen suicide

Crook County student’s death highlights importance of mental health resources

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: February 20.2007 5:00AM PST

The Crook County School Response Team reacted immediately to the news earlier this month of a student’s death at Crook County High School.

Team members – who include school counselors, teachers, health department workers and law enforcement officials – went to the school on the afternoon of Feb. 8, when a student died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound in the school’s parking lot.

The group and school administrators helped grieving students that day and set up a “safe room” with extra counselors in the library for students to stop in throughout the following day. They arranged for additional counselors to be at the school throughout the next week, and followed up with the friends and family of the deceased student.

“We become a true family bound by love and compassion in a challenging time,” said Doug Bristow, the team leader and a counselor at Crook County Middle School. “Community leaders and department heads in our community are all willing to give everything they’ve got, stop their normal process, and do everything in a dramatic experience like this.”

The Crook County crisis response team also received assistance from Jefferson County’s team. Bristow said about 13 Crook County team members responded and five people came from Jefferson County.

“Normally a response isn’t quite that heavily staffed, but it was a unique situation,” he said.

In the wake of the student’s death, local school administrators and mental health officials say the event should raise awareness about the problem of suicidal thoughts among high school students. They add that there is a variety of resources in Central Oregon for parents and teenagers who want to seek help, but the best place to start is often with teachers and guidance counselors.

“We tell kids that the school is only as safe as we make it, and so everyone has a responsibility to bring information to us, let us know about people they’re worried about, because we care and basically the more we know the more we can help,” Crook County High School Principal Jim Golden said. “Kids will give the best kid advice they can, but they only have 15, 17, 18 years of living.”

Colleen Stover, a school psychologist with Bend-La Pine Schools, said she has encountered many students considering suicide in her 18 years of work in different states and school districts.

“It’s very prevalent, unfortunately,” Stover said. “It’s so hard being a teenager and our kids just feel like they have no control, because they don’t have any control in their lives right now, and they’re depressed.”

The school’s role

Golden and Crook County Superintendent Steve Swisher said that extra counseling is still in place for Crook County students who want to talk about the shooting. Local businesses and residents have contributed more than $1,000 to support the counseling efforts, Golden said.

“This event won’t be over in a day in terms of the feelings and that kind of stuff, so there will be ongoing support,” Swisher said.

Data from last year’s Oregon Healthy Teens Survey, conducted by the state Department of Human Services, shows that suicide and suicidal thoughts affect a significant number of local high schoolers. According to the survey, 16 percent of the roughly 290 11th-graders surveyed in Crook County reported that they had “seriously consider(ed) attempting suicide” in the past year, and almost 9 percent said they had attempted suicide, the highest proportion in the region.

Almost 13 percent of Deschutes County 11th-graders, or 72 out of 546 students, said they considered suicide and 7.5 percent said they attempted.

In Jefferson County, the numbers were 11 percent and 4.5 percent, respectively, with a survey size of 140 students. By comparison, about 12 percent of students statewide reported seriously considering suicide, while about 5 percent said they had attempted suicide in the past year.

In all three counties, the number of female students reporting that they had considered or attempted suicide in the past year was higher than the number of male students.

Golden said the most important first step in students getting help is to talk to an adult at school, whether it be a guidance counselor, teacher, coach or administrator. After that, he said, school counselors often refer students to the Crook County Mental Health Department or private therapists.

“Generally, our counselors don’t do ongoing therapy,” Golden said. “Our counselors serve as a gateway to get people the help that they need, so they do assessments based on their training and then get kids where they need to go, whether it’s drug and alcohol counseling; whether it’s mental health; whether it’s grief.”

Bristow said that the members of the crisis response team undergo a rigorous training process. The Crook County Team is part of the Tricounty School Response Team and members of the individual county teams help with situations in schools around Central Oregon.

“It’s very crucial to returning to homeostasis that we have this kind of response, a collaborative, unified, compassionate response,” Bristow said. “It’s something that you’re glad you’re good at it, but wish you never had to do it.”

Gary Carlton, the principal of Madras High School, said that if administrators are worried a student could be a danger to himself or others, they may contact agencies such as child protective services or the county health department. He added that counselors may do a risk assessment with a student if she is suspended for problems such as drugs and alcohol or violence.

“I think just like any school, I don’t think we have any more or any less situations where students will find themselves depressed or in a position where they could do harm to themselves or there’s a threat of that,” Carlton said. “It does happen and that’s where your connections are really, really important; that’s where teacher relationships to students become the real critical kind of thing.”

Several administrators said that one of the most frequent ways a troubled student comes to the attention of school officials is through a concerned friend.

“We have four counselors here at Mountain View High School for 1,800 kids, and (High Desert) Middle School has one counselor for over 700 kids, so we really rely on their friends,” Stover said, adding that sometimes pieces of writing from students’ language arts or health classes will alert teachers to a possible problem. “They have services that they can access, but lots of times they just talk to their friends and the friends don’t know to come to an adult.”

Local mental health resources

Stover said that one of the most important first steps for students in getting help is connecting with an adult at school. If parents are concerned about their children, she said, a school guidance counselor or psychologist is a good person to talk to because they are familiar with the different resources in the area. Stover does not see students on an ongoing basis, but she said she often “checks in” with those who are in therapy and have considered or attempted suicide in the past.

“One of the things we’re really trying to work on is to get rid of the stigma – to let parents know and let our students know that human beings are the only animals on Earth that can think about hurting themselves, so therefore it’s just not uncommon,” she said. “That has to stop being a taboo subject. It has to be something that we start getting out there so that people understand it’s a major problem.”

She added that the school district is hoping to implement training for staff in recognizing and helping student suicide problems. The school health classes cover the topic of suicide and discuss resources with students. The Deschutes County Mental Health Department also has a psychologist who rotates among the different schools during the week and can treat students who are covered by Oregon Health Plan.

Stover is a member of the Deschutes County Youth Suicide Prevention Coalition, which brings together mental health professionals, county human services agencies and community members to work on the problem. Elaine Severson, another member of the coalition who is a public health nurse with the Deschutes County Health Department, said that one of the group’s main goals is raising awareness in the community about the types of resources available to parents and teenagers.

“There aren’t a whole lot of resources for high school kids, and most of what is there that really makes a difference is what they can access in the school,” Severson said. “(The Youth Suicide Prevention Coalition) has found through experience and research that it’s really critical that kids who are high risk or actually have attempted (suicide) have someone in their school who has been identified as someone they can go talk to and kids need help making that link.”

One good resource, she said, is the Deschutes County Mental Health Department, which has a 24-hour phone hotline. Suzanne Smither, a social worker with the mental health department, said that the agency mainly treats clients covered by Oregon Health Plan, but can help anyone with an immediate crisis.

“Our crisis team will see anyone until the crisis resolves,” Smither said. “If they have insurance we’d refer them to someone, but we wouldn’t refer them until they’d resolved the crisis somewhat if they’re in imminent danger.”

Mike Conner, a psychologist who is also a member of the Suicide Prevention Coalition, said that many of the high school patients he treats go to the Internet first to seek information about their symptoms. Unfortunately, many of the Web sites dealing with suicide show different methods for committing suicide, he said. One good Web site, he said, is www.steponeforparents.com, which was developed by Bend-based Mentor Research Institute.

“The first step in actually getting help isn’t that there aren’t resources out there, it’s actually finding the right resource, so this is an online computer system that was created here in Deschutes County and it is the only thing like it on the planet in which you can actually go and screen your child based on the information and
concerns and behaviors you have and get a very sophisticated report about what is potentially going on with your child,” Conner said. He added that parents can then take that report to their doctor for further referrals.

“That is the biggest problem right now with suicide prevention is actually being able to find help in a timely manner and get the kid there,” he said.

Despite the region’s relatively high rates of high schoolers considering or attempting suicide, officials said that the combination of school counselors and county mental health departments can usually make appropriate referrals for students with ongoing problems and help them get into long-term therapy.

“The network for helping families and kids is pretty strong – I mean, there are a lot of resources, the key is just getting to the point where you can connect those resources (and) having the issue come to the forefront where you can begin dealing with it,” Madras High School Principal Carlton said. “There’s generally a place to turn to and somewhere to get help for families and kids once everybody’s willing to go for that help.”

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