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The Wake County Public School System is implementing new ways to fight suicide. Last year, twenty Triangle adolescents between the ages of eleven and nineteen took their own lives. In North Carolina, suicide is the third-leading cause of death for ages fifteen to twenty-four and the second-leading cause for those between the ages of ten and fourteen. It is a big problem, which is why Wake County is working to help students who may be questioning life.
Previously, the signs of suicide were only taught to seventh graders and high school freshmen, but this year they will also be taught to high school seniors. The Signs of Suicide program (SOS), which began eight years ago, teaches acknowledge, care, and treatment (ACT). There is a twelve-minute video followed by a presentation. It also has students fill out survey sheets, which include questions asking if they need to see a counselor to discuss their thoughts or those of a friend. Even if their friend goes to another school, counselors will work to locate the student. “Teens keep stuff from adults,” says Michelle Pittelli, Apex High School’s Student Assistance Program Coordinator. “[The students] have a better chance of keeping each other safe than adults do.”
If a student answers ‘yes’ to any of the questions, they are given the opportunity to talk to a counselor. They will be given a suicide assessment where an adult and a trained counselor must be present. “We want to find the kids,” says Pittelli, “and we want to call a parent.”
“Seniors could be more savvy and write no if they know we’re going to follow up,” says Pittelli. “But, at the same time, they could lie in our office.” Per class, about two or three students have answered ‘yes’ to having been suicidal, and most say it occurred in middle school, but counselors still want to know who they are. “We all really want to do this,” states Pittelli. “We use the civics classes. I think eighty to ninety percent of students have it this semester.”
The national rate of suicide between those ages fifteen to twenty-four is higher among college students, so staff want to ensure students recognize the warning signs and what can be done. Pittelli stresses there are resources for students once they are no longer in high school, such as counseling at colleges. “We are all very passionate about saving lives. Other students have taken their lives since they’ve left [Apex High].”
However, it is not just students who are being informed; Wake County now requires all school staff to be trained by mental health professionals and every counselor to go through suicide screening training. This way, they will be able to recognize and report signs of depression and suicide in students. Experts say the best thing to be done for adolescents suffering from depression is to make sure an adult knows. “Our response is getting parents involved,” explains Pittelli, “and sharing with them where to go.”
Green Hope has been focusing on communicating with their students following the death of one who took his own life. The high school surveyed their students on their feelings and shared the results with parents at an emergency meeting. Travis Allen, the father of the deceased student, warns parents to take their children’s worries seriously. “His concern was for the future,” explains Allen. “I should have talked to him more about his stress and not discounted it. In my mind, he had no stress, and in his mind he had the weight of his whole future bearing down on him.”
Experts recognize the pressure more challenging college admission standards place on adolescents; they also view social media as a catalyst for bullying. Karen Summers, Green Hope High School Principal, tells parents to combat these stresses by being involved in their children’s lives. She suggests guardians restrain from criticizing their kids for receiving a ‘B’ instead of an ‘A.’ Summers also recommends they get access to phone and social media accounts to monitor cyber bullying and to move firearms out of the home if the teen suffers from depression or a mental illness because they are more prone to self-harm.
People are even more likely to hurt themselves if they have experienced traumatic events, like a loss of a relationship or loved one. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender high school students are also more likely to commit suicide. Staff also fear contagion and copycats because those who have been close to someone who has committed suicide are more likely to take their own lives.
Some of these factors are ones which are difficult to notice, and students are not getting the support they need. About twenty percent of teens suffer from depression sometime during adolescence, and eighty percent do not receive help. Eight percent of high school students have attempted suicide within the last year. In Wake County, two out of every twenty-five students have attempted suicide at some point.
The American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor for every 250 students because a larger student ratio could result in less personalized attention. In the 2014 to 2015 school year, Wake County had a 1-to-396 ratio in high schools and a 1-to-391 ratio in middle schools; these numbers are higher than the state’s average.
But schools are changing to account for their at-risk students. Educators are focusing on prioritizing tasks for counselors and bringing in substitute counselors if more are needed. North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services is adopting ways to better address suicide including crisis intervention training for all officers, medical facility staff, and school staff.
Wake County’s crisis team, instituted by Master of Social Work (MSW) degree holder, licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), and Crisis Intervention Specialist Kelly Lister, has psychologists and social workers ready to respond. Pittelli notes the county is large, and there have been crises in the past. “Apex is not immune to this; I think we have a high stress level.”
Students do have the opportunity to opt out of the SOS presentation. But the program has shown a reduction in self-reported suicide attempts by forty percent, so it could be beneficial to attend. One never knows what they could learn which may just save themselves or someone they know. “Being in touch with students and training teachers, you know it’s never enough,” admits Pittelli. “But if we save just one life, it’s worth it.”
Over the phone crisis counseling and suicide intervention
24 Hour Crisis Line: (919) 231-4525
Holly Hill Hospital
Emergency mental health services
Telephone: (919) 250-7000 (24 hours)
UNC Crisis and Assessment (young children)
Emergency mental health services (located in Chapel Hill)
The crisis service number is (919) 966-4131
To obtain an appointment, call (919) 966-5217
UNC Crisis and Assessment
Emergency mental health services (located in Raleigh)
Emergency Number: (984) 974-4830 (24 hours)
Strategic Behavioral Center (ages 12-17)
Emergency mental health services
Emergency Number: (919) 800-4400 (24 hours)
National Suicide Hotline (24 hours)
Lifeline (24 hours) 1-800-273-8255
Alliance Behavioral Health
Mental Health options
Number: (919) 651-8500 (8:30-5:15 M-F)
Therapeutic Alternatives, Inc.
Mobile Crisis Service for adults and children
24 hour Crisis Line;
Mobile Unit 919-799-0701
American Association of Suicidology:
American Foundation for Suicide
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