Chandler students try saving peers from suicide - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Chandler students try saving peers from suicide

May 24th, 2021 development
Chandler students try saving peers from suicide

By Kevin Reagan
Staff Writer

In the aftermath of two Chandler teenagers dying as a result of mental health struggles, local high school students are ramping up their efforts to reach out to classmates in distress before it’s too late.

Chandler Unified may be wrapping up the 2020-2021 school year, but some students are focused on ensuring their peers have the resources they need for help during the summer break.

Their efforts have taken on a greater urgency this month after a Perry High School sophomore took his life and a Hamilton High senior died of a drug overdose. In Scottsdale, a Chaparral High freshman girl took her life as well.

A group of Perry High School students recently assembled at Uptown Cheapskate on Chandler Boulevard with a box of business cards.

The teenagers spent a couple of hours strolling around the clothing store, placing hundreds of the cards inside jackets, purses, and pockets – hoping they’d be discovered someday by someone who needs them.

The cards list phone numbers of free hotlines available to teenagers experiencing suicidal ideation, depression or anxiety.   

The Perry students are hoping the cards will come in handy for someone in Chandler who needs help and doesn’t know where to go.

The teenagers are members of Pumas for Pumas, a school club that advocates for mental health awareness on campus.

Samuel Cristerna, the club’s president, said hiding hotline numbers around the community has been a new outreach strategy.

“People just need to know that they always have someone to talk to at the end of the day,” Cristerna said. “It’s okay to not be okay.”

Cristerna, who will be starting his senior year this fall, said he joined Pumas for Pumas as a freshman when the club started out as an initiative to guarantee that no student on campus sat alone during lunch period.

The club has since evolved to be more focused on educating students about mental health issues and guiding them toward professionals who can treat their needs.

The club’s goal is to encourage students to take care of one another, Cristerna said, and help each other feel less alone.

Members of Generation Z, which consists of individuals born after 1995, are believed to be plagued by depression and anxiety at much higher rates than previous generations.

According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, at least 70 percent of today’s teens have noticed their peers suffering from depression and 61 percent reported feeling intense pressure to achieve academic success.

Cristerna said he thinks members of his generation feel pressured to compare themselves constantly to others and are harder on themselves when they experience failure.

The high school student said he’s struggled with anxiety in the past and has watched his brother experience fainting spells due to chronic stress.    

Those personal encounters motivated Cristerna to join Pumas for Pumas and to help one classmate from experiencing the same struggles as his brother.

“I’m doing this for him and just for people who struggle with mental health and need that support,” Cristerna said.

In the last couple of years, each CUSD high school has established some sort of mental health club that can serve as a local resource for its students.

Brenda Vargas, the district’s director of counseling services, said all of the schools are planning to conduct outreach campaigns, dispersing informational cards with resources for struggling teens.

The goal is to have each school go out to different regions of the Chandler community, Vargas said, and hide the info cards in places where they can easily be discovered.

“You never know who’s going to end up with this information and who’s going to need it,” she added.

Vargas’ department has spent the last year having to completely reevaluate how it reaches out to students, since many were learning virtually from home for much of the school year.

During the early months of the pandemic, Vargas and her staff spent much of their time trying to track student engagement and ensuring nobody fell off the grid.

If a student stopped logging online, Vargas said the district would often have to dispatch somebody to their home or ask law enforcement to conduct a welfare check.

The ongoing instability and isolation caused by the pandemic has notably had negative impacts on teenagers all across the country and many didn’t know how to cope with suddenly being disconnected from their peers.

National studies show rates of depression and self-harm quickly started to rise shortly after the pandemic began last March.

Just in the last month, CUSD has lost two students who had been struggling with mental health problems during the pandemic.

Zyon Anderson, 16, of Perry High died by suicide on May 2 after having survived multiple suicide attempts in the past year. A week after Zyon’s death, a Hamilton High School senior, Alex Taylor, died of a possible drug overdose.

Alex’s mother, Lindsay Taylor, is Perry High’s social worker and had been helping the school’s students mourn Zyon’s passing.

A couple days before her own son’s death on May 9, Taylor penned a letter to Perry’s families detailing her sorrow over Zyon’s death and personal frustrations with how mental illness is clinically treated in Arizona.

“I continue to be determined to be part of the solution and advocate for a better, more affordable, easier to access system that allows for a variety of therapeutic services that fit the needs of each individual and family,” Taylor wrote.

“The current options are limited, not the highest quality, unaffordable, and not user-friendly.”

Sidney Stockham, a Perry High junior, said the recent deaths of two teenagers in the community has been an impactful, eye-opening experience for many of the students at her school.

“It’s definitely a time when we should be reaching out and that we should be learning from it,” Stockham said.

Stockham is another member of Pumas for Pumas and has helped the club grow its presence on campus this past year.

It’s important to be open and honest about mental health, she said, and more teenagers today are starting to understand the value of sharing their feelings and trauma.

Stockham said she’s lost family members to mental illness and has personally struggled with a panic disorder in the past.

Now that she’s overcome her struggles, Stockham said she’s determined to help anyone else who may have walked in her shoes.

“It’s stressful being a teen,” she added. “Mental health is definitely an issue in kids today.”

Perry High is in the midst of collaborating with Arizona State University on producing a series of web videos to educate teens on a variety of mental health topics.

Holli Cagle, one of Perry High’s guidance counselors, said she’s hopeful that the school’s new outreach efforts will reach the students in greatest need of support.

In the 25 years Cagle has worked in education, she’s noticed a significant shift in the types of problems students need help with.

The influence of social media has completely changed the way students see themselves and each other, Cagle said, explaining teenagers often don’t know how to avoid a constant stream of negative images and messages.

“When they start to feel uncomfortable or start to feel alone,” Cagle added, “they don’t know how to process those feelings.”

Cagle mentors Pumas for Pumas and thinks the club is helping to identify the struggling students who may get overlooked by teachers or counselors.

The club’s members are trained in how to approach a classmate they think is having problems, Cagle explained, and ask them the right questions that could direct them to someone who can professionally help.

The club is planning to do some exciting activities in the next school year, Cagle said. She thinks they will boost the club’s influence and hopefully prevent any student from feeling lost or adrift.   

“I love being able to do a club like this and be able to put ourselves in front of the students so they know how to access the counselors,” Cagle added.

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