Momentum growing to stem teen suicides here - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Momentum growing to stem teen suicides here

December 24th, 2018 development
Momentum growing to stem teen suicides here

By JIM WALSH, Staff Writer

A group of social workers, counselors and teachers are moving to form an East Valley suicide prevention coalition in response to the growing number of teen suicides in the region.
Ted Huntington, community programs manager for the Chandler Coalition on Youth Substance Abuse, said the coalition hopes to develop an action plan at its next meeting, scheduled for Jan. 10.
“If nothing else comes out of this, there is a collaborative effort to remove the silos in our different agencies,’’ he said. “They are working to come together as a community and they are willing to take some action.”
And they now have help from the state, which has filled the position of suicide prevention coordinator that the State Legislature created earlier this year.
Kelli Donley Williams, the new suicide prevention coordinator, told the group that she is looking forward to working with grassroots organizations and is planning a series of community meetings across the state.
“Suicide touches me both personally and professionally,’’ Donley-Williams said. “I feel like our state plan is more academic than it is practical.’’
She added that she suspects there are more suicides that are not turning up in state reports, noting that it can take months for medical examiners to complete toxicology reports and that distinguishing a one-car fatal car wreck from a suicide can be difficult.
“Our data is not up to date,’’ Donley-Williams said. “It’s very difficult for me to know what is going on in this community or in this school.’’
Donley-Williams pledged to assist in the East Valley efforts and said she is planning a series of community meetings around the state that would contribute toward re-writing the state’s suicide prevention plan.
Gilbert Mayor Jenn Daniels also is playing a pivotal role on another front, making teen suicide prevention a topic for her Advancing Gilbert’s educational leadership team, a panel of officials from public, charter and private schools, as well as colleges and universities and the Gilbert Chamber of Commerce.
Daniels also partnered with Katey McPherson, an East Valley education consultant and former Gilbert school administrator who has been mobilizing the community to fight teen suicide.
“I really want to understand what the schools are already doing and where are the gaps,’’ Daniels said. “Every youth matters, every child matters. I feel very strongly that youth are the key to the solution.’’
Daniels said she agrees with McPherson’s philosophy that children need to develop coping skills and emotional resiliency, learning from small setbacks, even in grades K through 6 so that they can deal with greater challenges in junior high school and high school.
“There is a lack of human connection in our society,’’ Daniels said, with too many people fixated on cell phones and other electronic devices. “We need to make some changes.’’
McPherson said that promoting emotional wellness in young children is just as important as the suicide prevention efforts. She said children are struggling with anxiety as early as third and fourth grade.
“By the time a kid is 12-14 years old, undoing their patterns of behavior is a little harder,’’ she said, making early intervention critical.
“I think it’s definitely moving in the right direction,’’ she said about the suicide prevention efforts. “We need to put an equal amount of time and resources into the wellness component.’’
The hiring of Williams, the new suicide prevention coordinator, coincides with the release of the annual Child Fatality Review report by the state Department of Health Services. The report documented an increase in teen suicides in Arizona from 38 in 2016 to 50 in 2017.
Nikki Kontz, clinical director of Teen Lifeline, said half of the suicides documented by the report occurred in Maricopa County.
“Every number is a life lost,’’ she said. “We can’t say, ‘it’s predominantly males, so we don’t have to worry about females.’ This data should not be used as predictability.’’
Kontz and other experts say research shows girls are more likely to attempt suicide, sometimes as a cry for help, while boys are more likely to complete it.
McPherson has tracked reports of 31 suspected suicides in 18 months in the East Valley, which would include parts of 2017 and 2018.
Kontz said she suspects McPherson’s numbers might be somewhat inflated, but added, “we know that historically suicide is under-reported. We know in some communities, there is a stigma attached to it.’’
Natalia Chimbo-Andrade, education and outreach coordinator for Community Bridges, said the results of a Youth Risk Survey also are troubling, with 12 percent of youths surveyed in Arizona saying they had attempted suicide, compared with 7.4 percent nationally.
She said 19.2 percent of Arizona youth reported seriously considering a suicide attempt and 14.6 percent said they had planned a suicide attempt.
McPherson said she has had contact with most of the parents whose children have committed suicide.
She said she agrees with Kontz and others in the suicide prevention field that much progress has been made.
But she cautioned that teens are still taking their own lives at an alarming rate – often over-reacting to stressful events in their lives, such as breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend or getting a bad grade on a test.
McPherson said the pattern of teen suicides that she has noticed involves mostly white boys in grades 7 through 12 from middle and upper-middle-class backgrounds who have access to a weapon or other lethal instrument and the courage to use it because they are in emotional pain they find unbearable.
“Some of these children have never experienced a failure or any sort of mistake. When they make a mistake, they don’t know how to cope,’’ McPherson said. “The under-developed brain can’t see a way out.’’