MARYSVILLE — Students recently bustled into the gymnasium at Totem Middle School for an assembly.
They sat solemn, attentive when they learned the conversation would focus on depression and suicide.
Before long, many were brought to tears, reminded of recent tragedy.
On Oct. 24, a freshman shot five classmates before taking his own life in a cafeteria at Marysville Pilchuck High School. Only one of the teens survived.
There’s now worry about wounds of another nature.
Research shows that school shootings often are associated with increases in risky behaviors among young people in the communities where they occurred, including thoughts of suicide. In Marysville and Tulalip, school officials say they’ve heard from roughly two dozen students struggling with depression or thoughts of hurting themselves.
“This is a real issue and it will not go away if we don’t talk about it,” said Mary Schoenfeldt, who was hired by the school district after the high school shootings to help direct recovery efforts.
“We don’t want to be defined by tragedy. We want to be remembered for how we move forward from it,” she said.
The Marysville School District, the City of Marysville and the Tulalip Tribes have worked together to address concerns.
“There is so much stigma surrounding depression and suicide,” Adam Lesser, deputy director for the Center for Suicide Risk Assessment New York State Psychiatric Institute, told the Totem Middle School students. “It’s OK to talk about this kind of really scary stuff.”
Lesser is part of a team of experts from the Boston-based International Trauma Center. Led by the center’s founder, Dr. Robert Macy, the team has been working to assess trauma in the community and to help develop a system to aid those in crisis. The team spent from Jan. 18-25 meeting with clinicians, counselors, and health officials from the city, county, and the tribes. Training sessions focused on ways to recognize and address suicide concerns.
Students received similar briefings.
“It’s a vulnerable time, and during vulnerable times people with mental challenges can get worse,” Lesser told the Jan. 22 middle school assembly.
Many times, suicide is not discussed out of fear that even raising the subject may give somebody the idea to hurt himself. Studies show that simply is not the case, Lesser said.
“Asking about suicide, in most cases, is met with relief,” Lesser said. “Most people want to get help.”
Students really are in the best position to reach those who need help, though are not always best equipped.
“Don’t do this alone.” Lesser told students. “Find someone you trust, someone you can talk to.”
Preventing suicide is a priority for the school district and the trauma team. The county’s Community Health Improvement plan already includes regular trainings for teachers on prevention and intervention.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third leading cause of death for people age 10 to 24. For American Indians of the same age group, it is the second leading cause of death, particularly among boys.
Experiencing trauma or knowing someone who died from suicide can contribute to increased suicide risk, studies show. Many students in Marysville experienced one or both of those stressors on Oct. 24, Lesser said.
“Historically and statistically, after an incident of this magnitude students may become more involved with high-risk behaviors which include suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, and other reckless activities. This is why we are discussing suicide awareness and prevention,” Schoenfeldt said.
At the Totem Middle School assembly, the message to students was clear: they can prevent further trauma. They have access to information and resources to help themselves and their friends.
“In your friend groups you have the power to keep each other safe. You have the power to make your lives better,” Lesser told students. “You couldn’t do anything before, because you didn’t know, and that’s OK, but we are going to help you to do something now.”
At the assembly, Lesser explained that suicide is most often the result of untreated or mistreated mental illness, including depression. Seven out of 10 kids struggling with depression go without treatment simply because they say nothing about their pain, he said.
He outlined some ways the students can help.
“Learn to recognize the warning signs of depression,” he said. If a kid becomes withdrawn, stops eating, stops doing things they normally would or starts taking unnecessary risks, ask what is going on.
Students also explored some of their resources for coping: family, spirituality, generosity and good friends.
Friends are a source of strength, though one student asked about secrets. Friends share troubles based on trust. How then do you get your friends’ help without betraying that trust?
“The best thing you can do as a caring friend is to tell them you love them, and that you care about them. Try to get them to seek help for themselves,” Lesser said.
Starting Tuesday, the Community Recovery Committee has scheduled a series of trainings for all adults in the community. Space is limited. For more information, contact (360) 363-8404.
A community interfaith prayer vigil is scheduled for Feb. 24 at the Marysville Pilchuck High School auditorium.
The team from the International Trauma center plans a return visit in February as well.
To reach Care Crisis Response Services, available 24 hours a day through Volunteers of America Western Washington, call 1-800-584-3578.
To reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK) or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Care Crisis Chat is an anonymous, secure way of getting help online: www.carecrisischat.org
Learn more about how to help at: www.suicideispreventable.org