425 Magazine “The Toughest Conversation”
Reposted from 425 Magazine by Melissa McCarthy
The Toughest Conversation
Professionals offer insight into the mental health struggles of Eastside middle-schoolers and how they aim to prevent suicide among students
Each year, school counselors at Odle Middle School in Bellevue — Kat Farkas, A’yana Carroll, and Jean Vrbka — visit every sixth-grade classroom in the school to introduce themselves and the resources they offer. Sixth-graders are instructed to fill out a brief survey to assess emotional and social well-being. For example, one question asks them to mark whether they feel stressed most of the time, sometimes, rarely, or never. The end of the survey has a blank space for students to include anything they want to tell the counselors.
“Responses range from, ‘I like this video game’ to ‘I’m a lesbian’ to ‘I’m feeling so sad every day, and I don’t know what to do,’” Vrbka said.
At the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, about one-third of sixth-graders checked the box saying they feel stressed most of the time. These stressors often manifest in depression, anxiety, or the contemplation of ending one’s life, according to the counselors.
Increased mental health struggles at young ages are not unique to Odle. Preteens and teenagers all over the country are dealing with higher pressure to succeed, decreased face-to-face connections, and undeveloped coping methods. Nationally, suicide rates among adolescent populations have been on the rise. In Washington, suicide is the leading cause of death among ages 10-14, according to the American Association for Suicide Prevention. At Odle Middle School, there were 69 reports of suicide intervention in the first two months of the 2018-19 school year.
Suicide interventions occur when students express suicide ideation, meaning that the student has disclosed they’ve considered killing themselves. They do not necessarily reflect suicide attempts or hospitalizations, but that the conversation has taken place. In some cases, students will be sent to the hospital for an emergency assessment. In other cases, they’ll be referred to behavioral health specialists or connected with other beneficial resources.
“Yes; we have more suicide interventions,” said Deborah Kraft, supervisor of K-12 counseling for Bellevue School District. “But, part of that is not because more kids are thinking about it. It’s because more kids are feeling safer in coming to talk to us about it.”
Because the 2013 state legislation requires all school districts to develop suicide prevention plans, students are being reached out to more regularly and in more ways than ever before. District employees in all levels are working to break down the stigma associated with seeking mental health services and meet students where they are.
Eastside schools in the Bellevue and Lake Washington School Districts have established a partnership with Youth Eastside Services (YES) to make psychiatric professionals available to students. Michelle Brode is a behavioral health support specialist with YES, working in elementary and middle schools in the Lake Washington School District. She responds to suicide risk assessments and provides substance abuse prevention and mental health counseling. With these tools to cope with stress, anxiety, and depression, Brode said students are less likely to actively try to end their lives.