Teen suicide rates have reached epidemic proportions nationwide and in Washington state. A dozen schools in King County are participating in a program aimed at addressing depression and suicide in kids before it’s too late.
Districts across the state do all kinds of surveys, the most publicized of which is probably the Healthy Youth Survey. It’s anonymous and the objective is to identify and track trends with drugs and alcohol, depression and suicide by age group.
A pilot program in King County is offering a different kind of survey that hones in on the individual students at the middle school level.
Remember how easy it was to get lost in the fray of the crowded middle school hallways? To be generalized? Marginalized?
Alex Ramos does; he almost didn’t survive it.
“I first attempted suicide when I was in sixth grade 'cause people bullied me a lot. I was the weird kid,” Alex told us.
Today he’s a senior at an alternative school in Snohomish County, helping other kids realize there’s hope by painting the bathroom stalls inside Crossroads High School with encouraging words and phrases—ones he needed to hear back in middle school.
“I wanted to do something like showing someone overcoming something like an obstacle, so I did this guy climbing over his wall,” Alex explained, showing us a stall door where he painted a teen sitting on top of a brick wall.
Alex is a first-generation American who will be the first in his family to graduate high school. He is also transgender.
He is the type of kid who is usually flagged by counselors and administrators as being at high risk for depression and suicide, yet he wasn’t.
Now there’s a new pilot program that aims not only to identify kids like Alex but also his classmates who really don’t have any risk factors at all.
“They look OK on the outside, but what’s actually happening with them is they’re not necessarily talking about it with the adults around them, so this is a way for us to get all kids—the traditional kids who have always been the kids we more often recognize but also those kids who are less obvious,” David Downing told us.
Downing is with Youth Eastside Services. We spoke to him in Redmond along with Matt Gillingham, director of student services at the Lake Washington School District.
YES is helping 12 districts across King County implement “universal mental health screenings” in all middle schools.
The state’s Healthy Youth Survey showed in King County in 2016 the suicide rate jumped 18 percent. Gillingham says in his school district, 13 percent of eighth-graders reported contemplating suicide.
In the new survey, kids will answer questions like these: How safe do you feel at school? Who supports you at home? How do you feel about the future?
It can help even if they don’t necessarily answer honestly.
“One of the cool things about the screener is that students get feedback along the way about healthy behaviors, and so even if a student may not necessarily be sharing everything that’s going on with them, they’re getting some feedback. They’re getting some information that can help lead to some choices,” Gillingham told us.
Eighth-graders will start taking the screenings later this fall. It will be a rollout, offering the surveys to small groups so that enough mental health support staff can be on hand if kids are in need of immediate attention.
Alex has the help and support he needs now, but he says it would have saved him a lot of heartache had he gotten it years ago.
“I definitely want to be able to help another person who is struggling, going through their own thing because everybody struggles. Even people who you see and they're like always happy-- I think sometimes those people are the saddest, because they're trying to keep everyone else happy and they can't keep themselves happy,” he concluded.
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