Chandler educator urges local action on teen mental health - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Chandler educator urges local action on teen mental health

June 5th, 2022 SanTan Sun News
Chandler educator urges local action on teen mental health
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PAUL MARYNIAK
Executive Editor

In the wake of the deaths of three Chandler teens last month – at least two by suicide and the third a fatal drug overdose of undetermined manner – State House Speaker Rusty Bowers has formed a task force to examine issues and causes affecting the mental health of Arizona youth.

Meanwhile, the May 25 death by suicide involving a Perry High School freshman prompted Chandler educator and mental health advocate Katey McPherson a day later to ask Chandler City Council and Chandler Unified Governing Board to hold an emergency meeting on youth mental health and school safety.

“For the last five years as a mother of four in CUSD, an educator, and advocate I have asked for our city, schools, law enforcement as well as faith leaders and business leaders to come together with our students to create a call to action to confront the growing epidemic of youth struggling, suffering, and dying in our community,” she wrote.

The May 25 suicide brought to seven the number of Valley teens who have lost their lives to suicide or drug overdoses since mid-March. That toll rose to eight on June 1 after a Gilbert 18-year-old shot himself.

The deaths also underscored 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.

More young people get depressed as they either lose daily contact with classmates or for other reasons related to the end of the school year.

The House Ad Hoc Committee on Teen Mental will be headed by Rep. Joanne Osborne, R-Goodyear, and will include Gilbert Republican Rep. Travis Grantham and Tucson Democratic Rep.

Alma Hernandez as well as undetermined community members that will include educators, law enforcement churches and the general public.

Osborne said the committee will research and review information related to the impact of substance abuse, bullying, and social media on young people, particularly as it relates to teen suicide.

Bowers has directed the committee return in December with potential solutions and recommendations to public and private agencies that address teen mental health issues and improving access to mental health care.

“Teenage children today are faced with tremendous stress and pressure along the path to adulthood, and far too many succumb to substance abuse and suicidal ideations,” said Osborne, who chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee. “Struggles because of the pandemic and social media aggravate the situation further.

“As a mother of four and a longtime mentor to young Arizonans, I am deeply concerned with this current state of teen mental health, and I am committed to using the legislative pulpit to draw public attention to this important issue. Recent tragedies further highlight the urgent need for solutions. This will be our committee’s endeavor.”

McPherson said teen mental health “is 100% a community responsibility.”

“In the last 5 years, we have lost upwards of 65 children in our 10-15-mile radius, (15 in CUSD), to guns, drugs, suicide, or a combination of both,” she told Chandler City Council members and Chandler Unified administrators and school board members in an email. “To date, there is no formal committee, process, or collaboration that is tackling the issues that our community continues to face.”

“Currently, there is no mechanism outside of the Mayor’s Advisory Council or student council to hear student voices,” McPherson wrote. “These councils often do not represent those children who are underserved and underrepresented, nor a cross section of those who continuously struggle. …Their voices must be heard.”

“We have students who are suffering from mental health issues, who are indeed desperate, with access to firearms who have taken their lives using them,” she said. “We have campuses that are open wide with over 10-12 points of entry, no fencing nor updated cameras, and all of the ingredients of the pathway to violence present here and now.”

Chandler Unified Superintendent Frank Narducci replied to McPherson’s letter by telling her “we are working on several initiatives.”

The district and NotMYKid, a nonprofit with deep experience working on teen mental health issues, held a webinar last week for parents on warning signs of teens in mental crisis.

Narducci told McPherson that district officials are working on a series of forums with mental health experts and that he would be reaching out to city officials as well.

Mayor Kevin Hartke told his council colleagues and City Manager Joshua Wright that he wanted to “further the conversation” but it was not immediately clear what, if anything, city officials would do or whether they intended to let CUSD take the lead on any new initiatives.

A Hamilton High student’s fatal overdose and possible suicide May 16 followed by two days the death by suicide of a Chandler High female sophomore.

Those deaths 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 died by suicide within the last month and an Arcadia High student died by suicide in mid-March.

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

In 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a state of emergency, stating “suicide-risk screenings have yielded higher positive rates than during the pre-pandemic period.”

In a study of teen death rates in 14 states, the journal JAMA Pediatric on 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 mother of the Arcadia High student posted a heart-wrenching description of finding her son’s lifeless body at home and discovering that despite his 11 social media posts in one day he made on a private Instagram chat group that stated he was going to take his life, “not one peer took action.”

She wrote on seeandsay.live: “This is about looking at social media, dismissing statements of suicide, minimizing statements of suicide, glorifying statements of suicide, and the lack of accountability of a person who clearly is told that a person is going to commit suicide… and their lack of action. What has happened to our humanity?”

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.

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 pandemic began in March 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,”

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.