CUSD mental health response remains under fire - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

CUSD mental health response remains under fire

September 12th, 2022 SanTan Sun News
CUSD mental health response remains under fire

By Ken Sain
Managing Editor

The study session Chandler Unified School District conducted Aug. 24 on mental health and the nationwide increase in teen suicides did not lessen the criticism it continues to face.

The Governing Board heard criticism at its Aug. 24 meeting during public comments over how district officials are handling mental health.

“I came to the last board meeting where the ideas of implementing some mental health strategies were presented and I was left shaking my head,” said Teresa Burt, a licensed psychologist in Chandler who said she is treating 27 CUSD students.

“I found many inconsistencies in that report,” Burt said. “I think you all are trying to reinvent the wheel with people who didn’t sign up to address mental health issues.”

Students also criticized the District’s presentation.

“This awareness about mental health is a facade and we need to do better,” said Kailani Higgins, a sophomore at Arizona College Prep High School. “The teachers who use repetition as a method to help us retain information are not expected to use these same tactics when it comes to learning about mental health?

“How will they improve their literacy of mental health if it’s not something they have to study? So I am here begging for patience and for understanding, because this is a matter of lives.”

One of the things that upset Higgins was that district officials wanted them to immediately follow up on an email they had sent and were unhappy it was taking longer than 24 hours.

She said when the group first formed, it took the district more than a week to respond to their emails.

Another thing that upset the students was a report in this newspaper that quoted Brenda Vargas, CUSD director of counseling and social services, as saying that putting a spotlight on teen suicides may increase similar thoughts in other students.

A CUSD official said they felt that quote was taken out of context and provided a further clarification.

“The myth that talking about suicide will cause suicide has been debunked by nearly every leading psychiatric organization, including the National Institute of Mental Health,” said Emma Robertson, an eighth-grader at SanTan Junior High. “How we discuss suicide matters, though.”

But district spokeswoman Stephanie Ingersoll said Vargas was not dismissing all conversation about teen suicides.

“When it comes to suicide and youth mental health, CUSD follows best practices outlined in a toolkit by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration through the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services,” Ingersoll said.

That guideline does include an essay exploring as a myth the contention that talking about suicide triggers an increase in the number of people who consider it.

It also warns educators that talking about suicide methods can create images that are upsetting and it may increase the risk of imitative behavior by vulnerable youth.

The guideline also urges care when dealing with memorials to people who have killed themselves.

“Spontaneous memorials (such as collections of objects and notes) should not be encouraged and should be respectfully removed within a very short time. A memorial can be an upsetting reminder of a suicide and/or romanticize the deceased in a way that increases risk for suicide imitation or contagion.

“Large memorial assemblies should not be convened as the emotions generated at such a gathering can be difficult to control.”

Burt, the licensed psychologist, said she and another psychologist organized an event to address teen mental health last year called “Breakthrough” which was held at Compass Christian Church in February.

She said they approached the district seeking support, specifically with getting the information about the event out to as many students as possible.

At first, CUSD officials seemed interested and said they would be involved. Burt said. In fact, a preview of the event is featured in a district in-house publication.

“They said that they would send out emails and encourage teachers and students to attend and even give extra credit for attending,” Burt told the Governing Board.

“Then CUSD disappeared,” she continued. “ You don’t want to partner with the community like you say you want to because you were presented with the opportunity. You turned your back and walked away in silence. You did nothing that was promised. You didn’t return phone calls. You didn’t return emails.”

A District spokesperson said CUSD did share resources and contacts that its leaders felt best fit the vision of the event coordinators, but no further promises were made. She went on to say when the District has requests for proposals issued or available, vendors who meet the request criteria may apply.

Three students from the Arizona Students for Mental Health group addressed the board, reminding it that they have been asking for three things since June.

Those requests include:

• A student action board formed at all high schools and middle schools so they can let campus as well as district officials know what challenges students are facing.

• All teachers and staff get mental health first aid training.

• A student-led town hall before Sept. 15 that the district promotes so students can talk about the issue with their peers.

“We are going through a mental health crisis here,” “Students need these resources to survive, not only to survive, but also to perform well,” Basha High sophomore Sofia Borczon said. “How many more kids have to die before you give us what we need?”