3 Chandler teen deaths in May provoke mental health alarm - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

3 Chandler teen deaths in May provoke mental health alarm

May 22nd, 2022 SanTan Sun News
3 Chandler teen deaths in May provoke mental health alarm

By Paul Maryniak
Executive Editor

The deaths of three Chandler teens this month – two apparent suicides and the other possibly drug-related – made for at least seven Valley teens who have taken their own lives or fatally overdosed since late March.

That trend alarms a Chandler educator who has advocated for more than five years for teens’ mental health and has pleaded for parents, schools and government at all levels to pay more attention to the growing number of young people in crisis.

The deaths came amid a warning from Teen Lifeline, the nonprofit teen suicide prevention hotline and service, that parents of Arizona teenagers must be particularly vigilant about their children’s mental health at this time of year because more young people tend to get depressed for a variety of reasons.

“In the summer of 2017, we lost four students to suicide in 90 days in a neighboring school community” said advocate Katey McPherson, referring to Higley and Queen Creek school districts. “This is known as an echo cluster’ that if not addressed using prevention science, can lead to contagion.

“In May of 2021, two CUSD students –  during this very same week of the school year – died, one by suicide in a public venue and the other overdosed on fetanyl,” she said.”Vigils were held. Thoughts and prayers were said. And here we all are, still whistling by the graveyard.

“It’s as if kids dying is now normalized,” an angry and frustrated McPherson said.

She said recent student vigils and protests underscore that “the kids are tired of the lack of care and concern for their well-being.

Students planned a protest at Chandler City Hall today, May 22, circulating social media posts that said they are specifically targeting “bullying in schools and issues concerning minorities.” Additionally, a vigil was scheduled at Chandler City Hall last Friday in the wake of a Hamilton High student’s fatal overdose on May 16.

A Perry High student took his life May 24. That death, as well as the overdose death and the May 14 a Chandler High sophomore who died by suicide May 14, followed by a few weeks the deaths of two Brophy College Prep students, one by suicide and the other an overdose. A Deer Valley high school student also died by suicide within the last month. An Arcadia High student died by suicide in March at age 16 in his home.

McPherson criticized efforts to address teen mental health issues – even as countless studies have raised the alarm about the pandemic’s impact on young lives in a wide variety of ways.

“Our efforts to locally, collectively, and collaboratively get in front of this ever growing epidemic and suicide contagion have been weak at best,” McPherson said. “There a number of people working in silos and not letting the subject matter experts in to do the work they are trained to do.”

Calling the deaths part of “a public health issue that is a lethal hazard to the safety of our schools and community,” McPherson voiced frustration that drove her about five years ago to carefully track the teen suicides in the East Valley that she has become aware of. That total exceeds five dozen.

“I am still waiting five years later for parents, city, state, faith, and district leadership to truly stand up, rise up, and champion youth mental health with policy, funding, and true compassion and conviction for our youth,” she said.

In 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a state of emergency after its studies showed “suicide-risk screenings have yielded higher positive rates than during the prepandemic period.”

In a study of teen death rates in 14 states, the journal JAMA Pediatric on April April 25 wrote, “The proportion of overall suicides among adolescents increased during the pandemic. No other pandemic-period changes in adolescent outcomes were statistically significant.”

The National Alliance of Mental Illness last September noted that teen suicide rates are higher than the national average in Arizona, where 17% of high school students said they’ve seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.

As districts  pull the curtain down on the 2021-22 school year – the second consecutive year of disruptions in campus and home life by COVID-19 – Teen Lifeline asked parents to pay close attention to their kids’ behavior.

Both Chandler High and Hamilton High administrators emailed all students in the wake of the deaths, offering the services of counselors and the district Crisis Response Team.

Chandler High Principal Michael L. Franklin Jr. reminded parents that “youth may not demonstrate grief in the same manner” as adults. He listed a variety of visible signs parents can watch for that range across a gamut of emotions, from anger and sadness to shock, denial and extended depression.

“Some youth need to talk about a traumatic experience all the time and others don’t want to talk at all,” Franklin noted. “This is normal. While it is important not to force adolescents to talk about their experiences, it is also critical for parents/guardians to let them know they are willing and available to listen.”

Teen Lifeline volunteer suicide prevention peer counselors have seen an annual 10% increase in calls during the last two months of a school year.

A study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the beginning of April showed more than 44% of high school students in the United States reported feeling sad or hopeless every day for two weeks or longer since the start of the pandemic.

Disruption in normal activities, the death of relatives, isolation brought on by social distancing protocols and campus closures have all contributed to higher levels of anxiety and depression among young people, numerous experts have warned in the past year.

The study also revealed nearly one in 10 teens made a suicide attempt and nearly one in five seriously considered attempting suicide.

In Arizona, Teen Lifeline said it has experienced a rapid growth in calls to its teen crisis hotline the past two years, including a 20% increase in calls and texts from 2020 to 2021 and a 50% increase in calls and texts since the beginning of pandemic began in 2020.

“Regular conversations about mental health could save your child’s life,” said Nikki Kontz, clinical director at Teen Lifeline. “It’s been a rough couple years for everyone. Check in with your teen and ask how they’re feeling, if they’re worried about anything or if they have any concerns about the end of the school year,” she added.

Kontz encourages parents to be on the lookout for signs their teen may be having thoughts of suicide. These include:

• Major changes in sleeping or eating habits

• Feeling depressed, sad or hopeless for two weeks or longer

• Extreme mood swings

• Isolating themselves or withdrawing from friends, school or social activities

• Talking or writing about death, wanting to die or feelings of falling apart

“If you notice any of these signs, don’t be afraid to ask your teen if they have had thoughts about suicide,” Koontz said. “Research shows asking the question won’t plant ideas in a child’s head and it may give your child the opportunity to share their struggles.”

Even if you haven’t noticed any of these suicide warning signs, Kontz says it’s still important to talk to your teen about their mental health and how they are feeling going into the end of the school year.

“Ask open ended questions that encourage them to talk about school, friends and life in general,” she counsels. “Then take the time to really listen.”

Kontz provides the following four tips for talking with teens:

Be genuine. Acknowledge how your teen is feeling in a real way. You can tell when other people are faking it, and your teen can, too. Avoid using slang terms you don’t usually use in an effort to connect with your teen. While it might be well intentioned, using slang terms is likely to make both you and your teen feel more awkward.   

Be present. Choose a time to talk with your teen when you will be free from distractions and able to focus on what they’re saying. Listen carefully to what your teen says. Sometimes talking while completing a task or activity that requires little eye contact, like walking the dog, doing the dishes or driving, can make conversations more comfortable.

Be quiet. It can take time for a teen to formulate what they want to say or to work up the courage to tell you something important. While the silence might feel a little uncomfortable, it gives your teen time to think and respond. Resist the urge to interrupt a silent moment and be especially careful not to interrupt while your teen is talking.

Be empathetic. Teens don’t have the benefit of prior life experience like you do. Be sure to take your teen’s concerns seriously. While something like missing prom, losing a sporting event, a bad grade or even just an argument with a friend, may seem insignificant to you, it can feel immensely overwhelming to a teenager.

Teens who are struggling with thoughts of suicide, depression, anxiety or who just need someone to talk with are encouraged to call the Teen Lifeline hotline at 602=248-TEEN (8336) or 800-248-TEEN. The 24/7/365 service is staffed by teen peer counselors daily from 3 p.m. until 9 p.m. daily, including holidays. Trained counselors are available at all other times.

Teens can also text the hotline at 602-248-8336 between the hours of noon and 9 p.m. on weekdays and 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. on weekends.

Information: TeenLifeline.org.