(This is the second of two articles on Carbon School District's Crisis Response Team and death in the ranks of school students and staff).
If ever there was an ugly word, the word suicide is it.
And it is an even worse word when another word, teen, is added to it.
While many people try to overlook the problem of teen suicide because it is difficult to think or talk about, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has reported that the trend of teens taking their own lives has grown over the years. While the trend dipped a little in the late 1990s, it has increased again as the country moves into this new century farther and farther. More importantly, death among preteens due to suicide has jumped considerably more.
The reasons for youth suicide is complex, and that is important to note, because simplistic explanations can just complicate the situation. The CDC reports that 60 percent of high school students have thought about suicide at one time or another and that nine percent have actually tried it. The agency also says it is the third leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 24. Only accidents and homicide rank higher. And for children between 10 and 14 it is the fourth leading cause of death.
Social media and the web have also not helped the growth of suicide amongst youth. At times they have created an atmosphere that glamorizes it. The news media can also create problems by making suicide seem like a way out of life that is viable. In fact reporting the suicide of children improperly can actually create more thoughts about it in the heads of other kids.
It is a problem for crisis response teams throughout the nation. And it is no different for those that are on the team at Carbon School District.
"We don't memorialize suicide," said Judy Mainord, secondary supervisor for the district and one of the team members. "We don't want kids to see suicide as a solution to their problems. We do want them to know that we loved that student, but in no way that we condone what they did."
Unfortunately, suicide can beget other suicides, particularly when the details and stories of one death are passed onto others inappropriately. When dealing with a teen suicide, facts are important. Often the news will focus on the positive side of the person who killed themselves, without revealing the troubling aspects of their lives.
There is also a gender gap when it comes to suicide. Based on studies girls actually think about it more, but boys are four times more likely to die in the attempt to do it. The reason for this may be due to methods each gender considers an appropriate way to end it all. Females will take pills or even cut themselves. Males tend to use quicker and more powerful means to end their lives, like firearms. Sixty percent of the suicides in the United States are committed using guns.
The vast majority of those that commit suicide have deep depression. This can be due to a lot of different kinds of situations, but the pressures of being a teen in today's world are greater than ever.
When a suicide happens involving a student in Carbon School District, the watch is on. The team needs to not only respond to the death that has taken place, but to the possible consequences of that death in relation to "suicide clusters." To some who study suicide, clusters are a contagion, almost like any other disease that can be passed from person to person. Usually clusters show up in a specific geographic area, and/or in an accelerated time period. Groups of people related in some way by group or activity can also be included. It is a crisis response teams nightmare. But they do have ways to work toward preventing such behaviors. Counselors and others must keep an eye on students that were in groups affiliated with those who died.
"Follow up is very important," said Karee Hunt, who works at Wellington Elementary and the Lighthouse. "We want to see how other students are doing. We will often call homes to make sure parents are aware (of the situation and what happened)."
When there is thought to be a problem with possible clusters the school district uses a plan for prevention and containment of suicide clusters that has been put forth by the CDC. In addition the training for counselors and others that have to deal with teen suicides is intense. They have on-going information as well attending a week long conference on suicide at BYU each year. Information about teen suicide changes and keeping up with what researchers are finding about suicide is very important. All teachers in the district must also have training on suicide prevention and how to deal with students when suicides do take place.
"Staff members are asked to look for kids that might need mental health evaluations both before something happens and then for those that might need help after a death," said Mainord.
That means being vigilant about any student that might show signs of strain, depression or odd behavior.
Karen Kone, who works at Sally Mauro Elementary says that each situation brings new insights, and contact with every student and their family is important.
"Each time we have a death we learn a little more about what to do," she said. "One of the things we now do is to call the home of each student in the grade level where the death occurred."
Depending on the situation at times they also conduct home visits with students and parents as well.
The trauma of death and suicide is not relegated only to students. Staff members often have a hard time dealing with the death of a student or another employee of the distirct. All team members agree that traumatized staff is a problem too. In fact members of the team have admitted that they had to have people come in for them in certain instances because they were too close to the situation.
The CRT core group meets with the entire team once a year to stay in contact. Those involved include mental health organizations, law enforcement, the health department, the hospital, juvenile court and youth organizations, along with those from the school district that have responsibility in the areas involved.
The core team says that they usually average three to four meetings a year and then of course they meet before responding to any crisis that arrives on their doorstep. It is something they do not relish.
"Each year we hope and pray that we don't have to utilize the team," stated Kone.