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Nearly 1 in 5 teens seriously considers suicide. Can schools offer relief?

Editor's note: If you are having thoughts of suicide, go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).

In order to continue the conversation on teen suicide prevention after the segment aired, NewsHour held a Facebook Live hosted by Education Week's Lisa Stark with guests Monica Belton, social worker for Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia, and Laura Mayer, director of PRS CrisisLink in northern Virginia.

The statistics are sobering: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is now the second-leading cause of death for ages 10 to 18, and the number of teens reporting feeling sad, hopeless or suicidal has risen. But experts say suicide is preventable. Special correspondent Lisa Stark of Education Week reports on how one Virginia high school is confronting the problem.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But now, suicide is now the second leading cause of death among people aged 10 to 18. That's according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    How to tackle this problem? The research points to schools.

    Special correspondent Lisa Stark of our partner Education Week visited a high school in Virginia to see if their approach of teaching mental health can work.

    It's part of our ongoing education series, "Making the Grade."

  • Colleen Hurley:

    Depression is a treatable illness. True or false?

  • Lisa Stark:

    This is the kind of lesson you don't often hear in a high school classroom.

  • Colleen Hurley:

    Every single one of you matters. We care about every single one of you. So if you're not feeling great, if you're concerned about a friend who might also not be feeling great, please, please come tell us.

  • Lisa Stark:

    The subject, preventing suicide, taught by school counselors at Freedom High in Chantilly, Virginia.

    This district, Loudoun County, is expanding prevention efforts. It has dealt with 10 suicides in the past three years.

  • Colleen Hurley:

    We're going to go over some of the signs of some depression. Just by a show of hands, can we throw out some ideas that maybe you can identify some signs of depression that you have seen and recognize?

    Yes.

  • Student:

    Always feeling sad.

  • Colleen Hurley:

    Always feeling sad.

  • Douglas Fulton:

    We figured we have to be very public about this. We have to be up front about it. We have to talk about mental wellness, and we have to talk about suicide. We can't hide behind anything.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Principal Douglas Fulton has made mental health education an essential part of the curriculum at this high-stress, high-performing public school outside Washington, D.C.

  • Douglas Fulton:

    If we're not working on building our mental wellness for all of our students, we're missing a piece of education.

  • Molly Kammerdeiner:

    I have grown up with depression and anxiety.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Molly Kammerdeiner is a recent graduate of Freedom High now in college and doing well. It was a school guidance counselor who first realized Molly could be suicidal and told her mother, Kim. Molly was in sixth grade.

  • Kim Kammerdeiner:

    I was just shocked. She totally floored me. She said the reason Molly would be the one kid that you really have to watch is because she was very popular, great grades. Nothing pointed to issues with Molly. Nothing stuck out, except she was always sad.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Therapy helped. Molly has never tried to hurt herself, but she says she hit rock bottom in 11th grade.

  • Molly Kammerdeiner:

    I wasn't doing my schoolwork, my grades were dropping. And I care a lot about my studies, so it was really difficult. And then, more emotionally, I got hit pretty hard. And…

  • Lisa Stark:

    You OK?

  • Molly Kammerdeiner:

    Yes.

  • Lisa Stark:

    You don't have to continue if you don't want to.

  • Molly Kammerdeiner:

    But, I mean, it needs to be said.

    Sometimes, you come across like everything is completely fine, and there are days when you just want to die and you feel really, really bad, and no one can see it. And you're waiting for somebody to see it.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Molly's older sister did see it, and went to a Freedom High School counselor.

  • Molly Kammerdeiner:

    And the counselors at the school were the first person to hop on it and take care of me and screen me and make sure I was doing OK, and give me options.

    And it felt like they cared. And so that was all I really needed at the time, was I needed to know that somebody cared.

  • Dr. Christine Moutier:

    When it comes to educating our youth, the important things to teach them is that mental health struggles are common to human experience. There should be no stigma or shame in that, that asking for help is a good, strong thing to do, not a sign of weakness.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Dr. Christine Moutier with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says, even though schools don't have enough counselors and psychologists, many are trying to make mental health a priority.

  • Dr. Christine Moutier:

    They have eyes on our youth of America and can notice changes in their behavior and act to save lives, really.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Nearly one in five high school students will seriously consider suicide in a 12-month period, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Seven percent will attempt it.

    Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for those aged 10 to 19. Rates are especially high for gay, lesbian and bisexual students and Native Americans.

    Suicide experts say there are two key roles that schools can take. First is to identify students who may be at risk of harming themselves, and then to help connect them to the mental health services they need.

    Mental health issues can start at a young age, and half of all cases start before age 14. And the teenage years can be stressful, perhaps even more so nowadays, affecting students of all races and all economic levels, including those at relatively well-off Freedom High.

  • Student:

    I'm taking 3 A.P. classes, which has a really large workload.

  • Student:

    Social media, that's one huge thing. That really takes a toll on a lot of us.

  • Student:

    The deadlines that we have, things that we feel obligated to accomplish.

  • Melina Watson:

    Mental health got put on the back burner, unfortunately, and it shouldn't have.

  • Lisa Stark:

    At Freedom, the goal isn't just to help students in a crisis, but to prevent the crisis in the first place. They're working to make students feel connected to each other and to the staff. Not easy in a school of 2,100. So the school puts every student into an advisory, small groups of 14.

  • Student:

    You guys are freshmen, so you guys are still learning the ways of high school.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Freshman advisories are led by seniors, such Arnof Kumar, to help create a bond between the newest students and the most experienced.

    Teacher Debbie Savage runs the program.

  • Debbie Savage:

    Our overall goal, again, is about relationships and building relationships, because if you have strong relationships, you're going to feel good about yourself.

  • Student:

    Would you guys like a lollipop?

  • Lisa Stark:

    There's also a big effort to create a school environment that's welcoming and supportive. The students on lollipop duty, they are part of a suicide prevention program called Sources of Strength used in about 3,000 schools nationwide.

    Counselor Monica Belton oversees the effort at Freedom High.

  • Monica Belton:

    The meat and potatoes of Sources of Strength is really talking about strength stories, talking about what other kids are doing to get them through the hard times and how it's working for them.

    And so that's what we're asking people to do, is share their stories of strength.

    I want you to write down, draw pictures, do whatever you want to do, to let us know about things that you do that give you strength.

  • Lisa Stark:

    The focus is on building coping skills using resources such as family support, positive friendships, mentors, healthy activities.

  • Monica Belton:

    So we're going to take turns, and everybody is going to present their poster as a group.

  • Students:

    When we feel sad, or we feel blue, these are some of the things we do.

  • Student:

    My name's Alex. I like to drive.

  • Student:

    My name's Lizzy. And I like to exercise.

  • Student:

    Taking long walks, music in my ear, friends all here, working in the gym, making momma crazy.

  • Students:

    This rap is short. It's not about length. We hope you like our sources of strength.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Lisa Stark:

    Students recruited to participate come from all parts of the school community and go through four hours of training. They will become peer leaders, suicide prevention ambassadors.

    Here is senior Melina Watson.

  • Melina Watson:

    I think, slowly but surely, we have brought anxiety and suicidal ideation or depression, like, those feelings have become part of like our everyday conversation, which is great.

  • Lisa Stark:

    For principal Douglas Fulton, this is personal.

  • Douglas Fulton:

    I was a parent who got the phone call, your kid is in the hospital, they tried to kill themselves. It's scary. It's an uncertain feeling for a parent, but it's also time you really question everything.

  • Lisa Stark:

    His child is doing well.

    Fulton hopes the efforts at his school can make a difference. It did for Molly.

  • Molly Kammerdeiner:

    The high school, for sure, they saved me. And that's a big statement. But they really — they did save me.

  • Lisa Stark:

    And the staff here at Freedom says it is determined to stay vigilant.

    In just the first month of school, counselors screened five students flagged as possible suicide risks.

    For Education Week and the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Stark in Chantilly, Virginia.

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