Chandler teens’ nonprofit seeks more mental health help - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Chandler teens’ nonprofit seeks more mental health help

August 15th, 2022 SanTan Sun News
Chandler teens’ nonprofit seeks more mental health help

By Ken Sain
Managing Editor

Riana Alexander knows what struggling with mental health is like.

“I’ve struggled with anxiety my entire life,” the Chandler High senior said. “But in 2021, I was diagnosed with depression, and it just kept getting worse. I was missing school a lot. I was not eating, I was withdrawing from friends, I was just not myself. It got to the point where I did withdraw from school. I can go on and on about how hard it was.

“I think it’s important to remember that struggling with depression and struggling with suicide isn’t like … crying all the time and wanting to end your life. It’s like ongoing constantly,” she continued. “When I was struggling, I was still going out every day and talking to friends and smiling and laughing.

“But I was still struggling, there’s a ton of physical symptoms that come along with it. Like I was always sick all the time. And I think it’s something I would not wish on anybody.”

Riana is co-founder of Arizona Students for Mental Health, which officially became a nonprofit on Aug. 4. The group formed at the end of the last school year after three Chandler Unified students died by suicide and attended a governing board meeting to demand more help for struggling students.

They settled on wearing purple tie-dyed shirts to give their group a visible identity.

“It was like a cheap way for all of us to be in unison,” explained Elle Mramor, the group’s other co-founder and an eighth grader at Santan Junior High.

The teens said one way to help improve students’ mental health is for adults to engage kids in serious conversations about mental health and suicide – which they say aren’t happening now.

“When it’s talked about now, people, honestly, they joke about it because they’ve just never heard (about) it like until middle school. A lot of kids my age have not been educated about it at all,” Elle said.

“And I know it’s really hard topic to swallow, but you can’t just leave them without that knowledge and then suddenly in the seventh grade throw it all in their face,” she said.

Riana agreed.

“When I started to talk to people about it and open up about it, it just makes everything so much easier,” Riana said. “And I think that’s where the district needs to start as well. Because I know it’s hard for people to talk about it, and I know it’s a difficult subject, and people don’t want to talk about it. But the reason that people don’t ask for help is because no one talks about it.”

Another member of their group said he knew the Perry High student who died last May. The other two suicides last May involved Hamilton and Chandler high school students.

“We weren’t the closest of friends,” said Jayden Riecken, a sophomore at Basha High School, adding that they attended the same middle school and “he sat at my lunch table for a while and we had some classes together.”

Jayden believes some good has come from their appearance before the CUSD Governing Board.

“After the meeting, we had emails back and forth between some of the board members and stuff,” he said. “Not all of them were productive. Some of them were just, ‘hey, thanks for coming out and speaking,’ but I feel like we were raising awareness.”

A fourth member of the group is Lucy Wegener, an eighth grader at Santan Junior High. She said teachers and school staff need to have more training.

“Which would help teachers be able to recognize more signs, and even students, and maybe they would get more comfortable with it,” she said.

“So the students around them feel more supported when it comes to suicide and know that you’re not as alone as you think you are.”

Chandler educator and mental health advocate Katey McPherson said the effort can’t be left to the school district alone and has been urging city officials to take a more proactive role in addressing teens’ mental health.

“We have lost dozens of students to these feelings in addition to those who have also overdosed on substances,” she told city administration and council members in a recent email.

“When we as parents, cities, municipalities, and school districts come together with law enforcement and other non-profit entities there is not a diffusion of resources, there is an amplification,” she said. “Several local municipalities have begun this work and have fantastic programs in place because of it.”

She noted that in 2017, In the summer of 2017, the Town of Queen Creek, Queen Creek Unified School District and Higley Unified lost four students in 90 days to suicide and that “the response from the Town and school district was to dig in and to find out why.

“The survey data was used to align programs, services, and personnel to assist students on a daily basis,” she said, noting that Gilbert municipal and school officials also worked together under the leadership of former Mayor Jenn Daniels, though the pandemic disrupted plans.

McPherson also urged city officials to: have warning signs of suicide included in utility bills during September, which is Suicide Prevention Month; set up webinars regarding youth mental health hosted by the vice mayor; dedicate city funding “to youth prevention, not just crisis;” and sponsor or support outreach events hosted by local non-profits.

In just a few months the teens’ group has attracted considerable news coverage and filed the necessary paperwork to be recognized as a nonprofit.

The teens would love to see their group expand to other parts of the Valley and state.

But they say they’re not satisfied with CUSD’s response and want to see more results by the end of the year.

“I think we’ve gotten ourselves out there, but we haven’t made a huge impact,” Elle said. “We’ve gotten people on our side, but now we just need to take the people we got and like, tell them what we need, like what we want.

“There’s not that much time we can waste because it’s happening, it’s gonna be ongoing. Just because there’s a new year doesn’t mean it’s going to stop.”