Increases in youth suicide and depression spark communities to brighten schools

Janelle Stauffer remembers the fall of 2021 as “horrifying.”

Within the first two and a half months of the school year, there were six suicide losses in the Nampa School District. 

In a typical year, there are maybe one or two losses — still too many. 

That fall, Stauffer (a licensed clinical social worker) and other adults kept circling back to the same question: What could they do to help?

The question sparked a number of initiatives aimed at improving kids’ mental health. 

In 2021, a panel of mental health professionals spoke, drawing an audience of about 500. At a second event, student panelists shared their experiences. This fall, a video highlighted the voices of Idaho teens and what they wish adults knew about them. 

And last week, a local collaborative called 2C Kids Succeed hosted a week of positive, hope-focused events at Canyon County schools. 

Community members came together to show kids they care, whether by participating in high-five Friday, posting positive messages online, or helping to chalk school sidewalks with upbeat messages. 

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“It’s really just making sure our kids feel like the community sees them, hears them, values them, and that they know they have supports when they need them,” Jean Mutchie, a community health manager for St. Luke’s, said. “We want to link arms and support our kids and demonstrate that we will show up for them repeatedly.”

In some ways, the efforts seem to be working — there have been fewer suicides this year than last, Stauffer said. But there’s still work to do: suicide ideation has increased to crisis levels, and over the past few years more kids have reported experiencing depression and anxiety. 

Idaho’s youth suicides rates are distressing. The Bureau of Vital Statistics reports that those rates have increased from 8 to 10.7 (per 100,000 children aged 10-17) between 2016 and 2021. 

And America’s Health Rankings pegged Idaho at 46th — one of the worst in the nation — for teen (ages 15-19) suicide completions (2020). 

Exacerbating the problem are the shortage of mental health care providers, lingering impacts of the pandemic, and stresses generated by social media. 

But there’s hope — schools are partnering with local clinicians and college students to bring mental health services onto campuses. 

Plus, kids are starting to speak up, and adults are eager to listen. 

“Quite frankly, we have to do something,” Kathleen Tuck, the spokeswoman for Nampa School District, said. “We’ve got a whole generation of kids who are struggling, and we want to make sure they know they’re not alone.”

Hard conversations are helpful, and teens are initiating them

Given the platform, Idaho teens are ready and willing to talk about hard truths.  

“Mental health should not be something that’s out of the norm to talk about,” Hadley Boothby, a student at Nampa High, told Nampa trustees at a February board meeting. 

She was one of three students who came forward to share what it’s like to be a teen today, and to express gratitude for events like 2C Kids Week. 

“Mental health for kids nowadays is really, really bad,” Jordan Garcia, a Nampa High student told trustees. “Social media makes us think we need to keep up and it’s really just building up stress.”

“The hardest part about being a teen is you never feel like you’re being understood,” said Union High student Morgan McDowell. “(But) there are people that are here for our success and care for us, even when we don’t have the greatest grades or whatever.”

The student testimonies and a video of Idaho students brought one trustee, Mandy Simpson, to tears. 

“These are tears of being just proud of you guys … and just proud that this work is being done in our community,” she said. “Just know you’re loved and supported.”

Last week, student panelists in Boise shared their experiences in front of a large, mostly adult audience. They cited recent legislation, grief, isolation, sexual assault, and trauma as key stressors. 

Brook Heath, a clinical supervisor for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s children’s mental health division, said discussing hard topics — like suicide — is more helpful than harmful. 

“Research shows that talking about suicide does not increase the likelihood that somebody will commit suicide,” Heath said. “It actually helps (kids) to understand they they can talk to somebody about suicide. If you shy away from talking about it, it influences them to think that it’s a bad thing to talk about and that they should be ashamed about it.”

Stauffer, whose business — The Resiliency Center of Idaho — specializes in treating children who have experienced trauma, stress, depression, or anxiety, agrees: “We want to let their voices be amplified and be responding to what they say their needs are — and that’s an ongoing effort.” 

That means even during typical weeks, where there are no special events, it’s important that adults work everyday to boost youth mental health. And oftentimes, it just means being present. 

How adults can prevent and respond to mental health trauma

Parents taking time out of their day to spend “uninterrupted time with their children” is essential, Jason Hoyt, a counselor at Nampa’s Columbia High, said. 

Modeling positivity in a world that’s often negative is important, too. 

“Not to overlook the bad, but to allow the positive voice to be equal or louder,” Hoyt said. “That messaging that hope exists, even in some very dark places.”

Interested adults can also volunteer to get involved with high-five Fridays and other on-campus events. 

And when traumas like suicide do occur, adults don’t have to have the perfect words of advice or all the answers. 

“In my business we call it just being good enough, and good enough just means showing up and listening,” Stauffer said. 

“We’re putting so much on schools’ shoulders … We need to have our whole community be responding” — Janelle Stauffer, licensed clinical social worker

It’s also important that schools avoid memorializing suicide deaths in a way that glorifies them. 

At the same time, kids need time and space to grieve. 

One way to do that is by having students write letters to the affected family.

If students make a memorial, such as by adorning a locker with flowers or other items, it’s important to take them down after 24 hours and to let kids know that’s how it will be handled, Heath said. 

It’s also important that the weight of preventing and responding to mental health crises doesn’t fall solely on teachers, principals, and others in schools. 

“We’re putting so much on schools’ shoulders,” Stauffer said. “We need to have our whole community be responding.”

And that was exactly the point of last week’s event. 

“We want to focus on hope and support and make sure kids are connected to a trusted adult they can go to in times of need,” Mutchie said. “We want to repeatedly show kids that our communities rally for them.”

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Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro reports from her hometown of Pocatello. Prior to joining EdNews, she taught English at Century High and was a reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. She has won state and regional journalism awards, and her work has appeared in newspapers throughout the West. Flandro has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and Spanish from the University of Montana, and a master’s degree in English from Idaho State University. You can email her at [email protected] or call or text her at (208) 317-4287.

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