By Jim Walsh, GSN Staff Writer
A grassroots movement of East Valley mothers – saddened if not terrified by a growing cluster of teen suicides – has captured the attention of influential leaders united by their desire to prevent more heartbreaking deaths.
While the movement has accomplished a growing amount of awareness, it is unclear where the community mobilization efforts will lead – and whether it will involve changes in state law, greater school emphasis on teens’ emotional health, or community organizations focusing more energy on the problem.
A broad array of business, political and community leaders reacted strongly last week to an Oct. 14 report in the Gilbert Sun News that detailed how 31 East Valley teens – 29 of them boys – have taken their lives in the last 15 months.
The movement is striking a common nerve, with no relation to political or personal gain, as the mothers search for answers and solutions.
“It’s going from a point of being sad to being angry,’’ said Christina Nguyen of Gilbert, president of projectconnect4.org, who has been working with education consultant Katey McPherson of Chandler on mobilizing the community.
Nguyen said the status quo needs to change.
“Obviously, it’s sad that we have to have this movement. It’s heartbreaking,’’ Nguyen said. “On the other hand, it’s very heartwarming that people are very receptive and are coming together.’’ working to prevent additional suicides.
The Gilbert Sun News drew an almost immediate response from concerned officials during a joint meeting Oct. 15 of the Gilbert Town Council and the Higley Unified School District’s governing board.
“We do not view it as a Higley Unified issue but as a community issue,” Superintendent Mike Thomason said.
School districts in the Southeast Valley, some charter schools, Chandler-Gilbert Community College and Arizona State University are looking to consolidate their efforts because right now everyone is doing their own thing, he said.
“We are happy to come together with everyone in the Southeast Valley and come up with resources to protect our children,” he said.
Higley school board President Kristina Reese said the story about the cluster struck a chord in her district, which began this school year with the suicide of a 13-year-old boy.
“Our school year started with a suicide, a freshman the night before school started,” she said. “These are our kids. It’s hard when things like this happen. The community first looks at the schools and ask, “why is this happening,’ and ‘what are you teaching them?’”
Gilbert Mayor Jenn Daniels said the Mayor’s Youth Advisory Committee, comprised of high school students, will be discussing this issue in the future so that it will be a teen-led effort.
“We are throwing a lot of darts out there and don’t know if we are reaching kids,” said Higley board member Amy Kaylor. “Get the kids involved, what do they need from us as a school district.”
Daniels said that kids need to know the community is behind them.
At a separate meeting of parents in Chandler that was moderated by Nguyen, Autumn Bourque, 18, an Arizona State University student who became an anti-suicide advocate after a friend at Queen Creek High School took his life, said buy-in from teens is essential.
“We’re totally focused on what the parents want,’’ she said. “They aren’t thinking about what the kids want.’’
Bourque said she believes the suicide cluster is fueled by a combination of academic stress, stress at home and stress stemming from such factors as dating and social media.
“It’s social media for sure. It desensitizes your kids,’’ Bourque said, with kids making nasty comments about each other that they might not make in person.
What’s happening in reaction to the East Valley teen suicides follows a pattern that has emerged in other cities coping with suicide clusters.
Palo Alto, CA., an upscale city in the Silicon Valley south of San Francisco, founded ProjectSafetyNet.com after six teens completed suicide in 2009-10 and four more took their lives in 2014-2015.
Officials in Palo Alto convinced the federal Centers for Disease Control to study the reasons behind the suicides and to make recommendations on how to curb them.
Nguyen and other suicide prevention advocates are hoping to convince the CDC to do a similar study of the East Valley’s suicide cluster.
Nguyen said the efforts in Palo Alto and other places help to inspire the East Valley’s grassroots movement.
“It gives you more hope in our mission to move forward,’’ she said. “It starts with the power of one and we all come together to address this. “These kids are our kids.’’
Nguyen moderated two wide-ranging discussions about possible ways to deter teen suicides during meetings at Chandler restaurants.
Parents talked of their fears about teen suicides, how they want to build a sense of community in transient Arizona and how they want to reach out to teenagers and convince them that they loved and valued.
Parents grappled with many tough questions, many involving agonizing self-appraisals of their parenting skills. The mother of a boy who completed suicide said she suspected he was smoking marijuana and wondered if he was self-medicating and that she had missed a warning sign.
They discussed how to communicate better with their children, monitor and regulate their social media and video game use and encourage them to play outside instead of hiding behind digital screens.
“Kids are getting immune to the message,’’ said Kerri Jones, who attended both meetings. “My 14-year-old son is feeling suicide is a normal behavior.’’
Jones said she was concerned when she asked her son about teen suicide and he responded, “some kids just do this.’’
Nguyen said schools need to focus more on promoting emotional health and well-being by perhaps adding chapters on suicide to psychology classes or health classes, a policy adopted in other states.
Nguyen also launched a new Facebook page, the Arizona Coalition for Suicide Prevention- East Valley, to further the grassroots organization’s goals and to communicate with people seeking information about the suicide cluster.
“I love it. I see it as a good thing. It takes everyone using their voice,’’ said Natalia Chimbo Andrade, community education and outreach manager for Community Bridges, a Mesa behavioral health agency. “It’s nice to see the stigma of a taboo subject going away.’’
Community Bridges, other behavioral health providers, McPherson and Chandler ICAN are forming a working group to discuss strategies on attacking the problem.
“We are seeing a drastic increase in teen suicide in the East Valley,’’ Chimbo Andrade said. “We have also seen a dramatic increase in Arizona’’ as whole.
She said one commonality in many teen suicides is drug use, which may be impairing the decision-making ability of teens with brains that are not fully developed.
Experts stress that there is no easy answer for eliminating teen suicide, with each case having its own unique factors.
McPherson also is planning to collaborate with the Mesa Chamber of Commerce’s Business and Education Committee in November on suicide prevention efforts as broadens her coalition to attack the epidemic.
“In all my 23 years as a secondary school teacher, counselor, and administrator I never imagined this would be an issue I would face on such a large scale,’’ McPherson wrote the Chamber.
“My sense of urgency is great but I understand the process of an actionable plan that has tangible outcomes attached takes some time. To have lost a boy almost every week since Sept. 1, 2018 in Higley, Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa, QC is unprecedented,’’ McPherson continued.
Her outreach efforts also include an alliance with the Chandler Police Department through the award-winning Guardian Academy program, which holds classes to help parents, relatives and other caregivers with parenting issues.
In response to the suicide epidemic, the academy is adding two free, three-hour classes aimed at suicide prevention. McPherson will present a class at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 25, at the Desert Breeze substation, 251 N. Desert Breeze Blvd. in west Chandler, on child resiliency and the teen brain.
Dr. Paula McCall, an Ahwatukee Chandler child psychologist, will present a class on Dec. 6 on non-suicidal self-injury, suicide awareness and prevention.
“If we can better develop their emotional resiliency, we hope to combat their desire to complete suicide,’’ said Officer Tina Balsewicz, who directs the academy.
Balsewicz has conducted five academies in the past 2 ½ years, with two of them covering the need to recognize the warning signs of teen suicide, but she said she has added the additional classes in hopes of preventing additional deaths. Because of limited space, anyone interested in attending should pre-register by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
She said the warning signs can include changes in the emotional demeanor of teens, their interactions with family members, whether they have become isolated or withdrawn, and whether they are lethargic or losing weight.
McPherson and Nguyen are getting the attention of elected officials, letting them know that beyond awareness, there needs to be action to curb the problem.
“Any life lost to a suicide is a tragedy,’’ Chandler Mayor-elect Kevin Hartke said. “It’s education and awareness. What we are able to do is to create coalitions.’’
He said he would like to see whether existing organizations that focus on youth, such as Chandler ICAN, the Chandler Boys and Girls Club, and the Chandler YMCA, can play an integral role in outreach to teens without creating a new organization to address the problem.
One obvious hot button issue is reviving the Mitch Warnock Act, a bill that died in the legislature earlier this year that would have required that teachers and other school employees receive two hours of training a year on recognizing the warning signs of suicide.
Despite the bill’s collapse, the Tempe Union High School District, which has felt the pain of losing a child several times over, completed the training without any sort of legislative mandate.
With the assistance of East Valley behavioral health providers, including Teen Lifeline and Community Bridges, the district trained more than 800 employees in one day.
Last week, the district’s governing board formalized a contract with Teen Lifeline to provide additional training for parents, teachers and students on behavioral issues, including teen suicide and bullying.
Arizona House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, who is running for state Senate, attended one of Nguyen’s meetings on Monday at a south Chandler restaurant.
“I cannot think of a more important issue than children taking their own life,’’ Mesnard said. “When it comes to kids safety, I would think that should be a bi-partisan issue.’’
Echoing comments last week by Rep. Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler, Mesnard said he also would support a bill mandating teacher training on suicide warning signs.
But Mesnard stopped short of predicting that such a bill would pass, saying that it ran into opposition last year from the Arizona School Boards Association, which opposes state-ordered mandates in general.
“I think given the place we’re at, that’s a serious discussion we need to have,’’ he said.
GSN Managing Editor Cecilia Chan contributed to this report.