Suicide and mental health are topics often avoided, especially when it comes to children.
But the lack of acknowledgment can have dangerous consequences.
A gap in mental health care is the lack of conversation about youth mental health and suicide, regional experts say. Often, mental health in youth isn’t acknowledged for fear of negative stigmas as well as glorifying suicide.
“There is still the perception that if we talk about (suicide and mental health) with kids then they will think about completing suicide but that isn’t true,” said Carson Tahoe Regional Behavioral Health Coordinator Jessica Flood.
“Research shows that if you provide early intervention with individuals with mental illness, that their coping afterward is much more likely for their success and recovery. A large part of reducing the stigma of mental illness is helping everyone feel supported and comfortable in talking about these issues because that support and awareness is key to building healthy, vibrant communities.”
The National Research Council and Institute of Medicine estimates that nearly 20 percent of American children suffer from a mental illness and that suicide is the second leading cause of death for children ages 12 to 17. Studies show that one in 15 high school students attempt suicide each year.
Early identification for children by parents and school staff is especially important, according to the Center for Disease Control. Of the 20 percent of students that will exhibit mental health disorder symptoms, about 80 percent will not receive the necessary treatment.
“If we could start back at early intervention and prevention in the schools then, often, people wouldn’t get to 50 years old and suffering from super mental illness,” said Carson Forensic Program Manager and MOST counselor Bekah Bock. “If we could demolish the stigma, have those conversations, early identification in the schools could lead to prevention.”
Partnership Carson City conducted a workshop with sixth, seventh and eighth graders at Carson Middle School this year to educate the students on the signs and symptoms of depression and suicide. At the end of the workshop, the officials handed out surveys asking the students if they wanted to follow up with counselors to discuss concerns they may have about themselves or others. Partnership Carson City Community Outreach Coordinator Hannah McDonald said they received about 145 surveys that requested to speak with the counselors.
“(Talking about this) is immeasurable because it is a life and it deserves so much more than the burdens they are carrying on their shoulders,” McDonald said.
She said when the organization conducts these workshops, it is pretty typical to see about 10 percent of the school respond that they need help. McDonald said they attribute it to a difficult time in students’ lives because school and athletics typically get more difficult, there is added stress on their lives, and typically, family problems will occur around this age.
From the survey, they also observed a higher number of students admitting they are self-harming, but McDonald said they are unsure if that is attributed to factors such as social media or trends. McDonald said that a positive is that the students are willing to have that relationship with them and the school counselors to feel comfortable enough to talk about issues they may be facing.
“A lot of times, mental health is taboo, so a lot of students don’t want to talk about it, or don’t know how to,” McDonald said. “But they are open and willing to share with us.”
To help combat the taboo of mental health, the Carson City School District this spring put into place a new suicide policy targeting at-risk students early and intervene before as well as how the district will deal with a completed student suicide.
“Schools have a role in providing safe and supportive environments that foster positive development by being sensitive to individual and societal factors that place youth at greater risk for suicide,” reads the adopted suicide policy for the district.
Though suicide numbers aren’t high in Carson City, the district wants to make sure it is prepared if an incident arises.
“There hasn’t been an increased number of incidents of suicide with students,” said Superintendent Richard Stokes. “But when we do get calls we try to take into account of those left behind because it impacts students, teachers and staff.
“Suicide covers a lot of ground. It’s a delicate thing and we want to be able to meet the needs of those impacted.”
The policy includes ongoing training for all school staff to recognize risk and warning signs, screen and refer students who may be at risk and provide guidelines for actions to take in event of a suicide. Previously, there was no formalized procedure in place.
“The big part is prevention so if the teachers and school personnel can recognize and interpret certain signs that students and even coworkers identify as a possibility of a person hurting themselves then we can have a more informed person to provide assistance to them,” Stokes said.
The Carson City school board held meetings this spring to discuss and approve the policy.
At one meeting, Carson High School Chief Nurse Shelia Story said she sees nearly half a dozen students per school year who have come to school and shared that they attempted to harm themselves the night before or prior to coming to school.
“I urge you to adopt this measure because suicide is an ugly topic and we don’t like to talk about it, especially with young kids,” Major Kevin Burns, Western Nevada College Veteran Resource Center Coordinator, told the board. “All these kinds of issues we will never get it out of the closet and get people talking comfortably about it (without these policies).
“We need to be proactive with our educators and teach the kids how to say ‘I need help.’”
If a mental health issue is not treated, especially at a young age, it can lead to a cycle of incarceration, hospitalizations and more.
“If we don’t catch it early — because it will usually start showing by age 14 — they will start down a path that becomes harder to turn back on as they age,” Flood said.
Carson City and other counties are working on identifying various interceptions where an individual experiencing mental health issues could begin receiving treatment, however, these steps are all incarceration-based.
“We are trying to prevent at risk youth from aging with the criminal justice system,” Flood said.
The steps are:
0. Community Resources: Pre-incarceration that helps people get stable.
1. Jail Diversion: Programs in the community such as MOST and CIT
3. Courts: Specialty courts such as Mental Health Court or FASTT
5. Community Reentry
“We are trying to identify kids that are having issues early on before they end up in the juvenile justice system,” Flood said.