More county teens say they’ve seriously considered suicide

EVERETT — A growing number of teens in Snohomish County say they’ve seriously considered suicide in the past year, and 10 percent or more of high school sophomores and seniors say they have attempted to take their lives.

These were among the results from a Healthy Youth Survey, which questioned more than 14,000 students in schools across the county, as well as districts statewide.

Survey results previously have been released on topics such as drug and alcohol use. The newest data focus on emotional issues, including who young people turn to in times of stress and turmoil and how often they feel depressed and alone.

One of the most sobering findings was the number of students who said they had attempted suicide — nearly 5 percent of 6th-graders, 9 percent of eighth-graders, 11 percent of 10th-graders, and roughly 10 percent of 12th-graders.

The number of high school seniors who said they had thought about taking their lives enough to have a plan in place — 17.5 percent — has nearly doubled since 2006, said Gabrielle Fraley, a Snohomish Health District epidemiologist.

“We wish it were easier to pinpoint why,” she said.

One factor may be a nearly 6 percentage point rise since 2014 in the number of 12th-graders reporting feelings of nervousness, anxiety or being on edge.

“There’s this lack of hopefulness. It’s just a sense I get from youth,” said Wendy Burchill, who specializes in community health issues for the Snohomish Health District.

They have a lot of pressure to prepare for college, she said, which can fan worries over paying off higher education debt.

The survey also found that students were more likely to seriously consider suicide if they were Native American, female or identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual. High school sophomores who identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual were more than three times as likely to have considered or attempted suicide than their peers who identify as straight.

Nearly a quarter of high school sophomores and seniors said they don’t feel they can ask a parent for help with a personal problem.

Despite issues such as depression, about half of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-grade students said they “feel good about themselves,” and by even larger margins, they say they look forward to the future.

As officials search for ways to reduce suicidal thoughts and substance abuse among teens, the county is doubling its investment in a program that places student support advocates in schools. The advocates act as guides to the often overwhelming process of getting young people the help they need.

School districts and communities are taking action, too, helping students get counseling services, providing training to identify students facing emotional problems, and, in Mukilteo, opening a drop-in center.

It’s important to get young people involved in addressing suicide, mental health and drug or alcohol abuse, said Joe Neigel, coordinator for the Monroe Community and Youth coalitions. The goal is for students to see that needing help is normal.

The adult coalition has put on training sessions, including packed classes on mental health “first aid” and programs for school counselors. The group surveys parents each year and this is the first time mental health has been perceived as the No. 1 issue by participants.

The schools have a new agreement with Sea Mar Behavioral Health to provide counseling on campus, and the district landed funding from the county to add two student support advocates at the start of next school year, to help connect students to care.

Snohomish County Human Services is expanding its advocates program. There are 18 advocates in local schools, 11 of them funded by the county and others by the districts or the Verdant Health Commission. Ten more are being added. Everett, Mukilteo and Granite Falls schools already are involved in the program, and advocates are expected to start in Marysville, Monroe, Stanwood and Sultan in the fall.

The expanded program costs about $1.36 million. Money comes from a mix of sources, among them county sales tax and state marijuana tax revenue.

In the Edmonds School District, signs of suicide are included in the middle and high school health curriculum. Students also are surveyed on whether they would like to talk to an adult about an emotional problem they or a friend are facing.

“Within 24 hours we make sure someone is talking to them,” said JoAnna Rockwood, a school psychologist in Edmonds.

Plans also have been put in place to support students who have attempted suicide.

Stanwood High School, which suffered the losses of three students to suicide within a 10-month period in 2015, also has been active in prevention efforts. A team of volunteers and staff determine ways to confront suicide and underlying causes, including mental health problems and the stigma that surrounds them.

Students started Team H.O.P.E., which stands for “Hold On, Pain Ends.” The group recently began hosting lunch meetings where students gather for pizza and to talk with each other and adult volunteers who have been taught to help young people in crisis.

The district provides training to staff in the fall and invites the trainer to do a public evening presentation. Through a partnership with Catholic Community Services, counseling is provided on campus and students can be referred for additional help. One of the challenges for rural districts is that mental health care is not easily accessible.

Stanwood also has a free application for smart phones called “SHS United.” Along with bell schedules and bulletins, the app contains information on suicide prevention.

In the first week of school this year, a guest speaker talked about hope at the high school.

“That’s one thing we really want to focus on,” principal Christine Del Pozo said. “It isn’t just the negative aspects, but that there is hope out there and they can get through this.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or salyer@heraldnet.com; Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

The Volunteers of America Care Crisis Line helps teens and adults seeking help or resources for depression and suicide: 800-584-3578 or imhurting.org.

For adults who spend time with children outside school, such as coaching or leading a youth group, resources include Question, Persuade, Refer training or an eight-hour Youth Mental Health First Aid class.

The Snohomish County branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness provides programs for parents who need information on how to help their children. Information is available at www.namisnohomishcounty.org.

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