By Jim Walsh
Seven East Valley teenagers committed suicide during a six-week period this summer, creating a disturbing suicide cluster and a grassroots effort to do everything possible to prevent additional deaths.
The unusual suicide cluster included six boys and a girl ranging from 13-18 years old. Six victims hanged themselves and one death was by shooting. The deaths started on July 24 and ended on Labor Day weekend.
The teens lived within 10-12 miles of each other. They did not know each other, but one boy knew another boy who killed himself in May.
The victims – from Chandler, Gilbert and Queen Creek – were described as high-achieving students with plenty of friends who might not fit the pre-conceived notion of a suicidal teen.
The suicides came to the attention of Katey McPherson, executive director of the Gurian Institute, a Washington State organization dedicated to “helping boys and girls reach their full potential by providing professional development that increases student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and parent involvement,” according to its website.
McPherson monitored teen suicides for the past year, since a Corona del Sol High School student killed himself. Another committed suicide a year prior on campus.
As a result of the cluster, teen suicide – a problem traditionally cloaked in stigma and relegated to the shadows – suddenly emerged as a topic earlier this month when an estimated 350 people packed a room to hear about the psychological issues that motivate youngsters to take their own lives.
McPherson read off the victims’ first names at the conference but mentioned no other details to protect their privacy.
The conference focused on prevention, such as recognizing warning signs, improving communication between parents and teens, monitoring social media, getting help immediately for those in crisis and removing “lethal means” of committing suicide, such as guns and belts.
“We have to get in front of this story. We don’t have any choice. We can’t afford to lose another child,” said McPherson, who organized the conference at Gilbert’s Campo Verde High School.
McPherson, a former Gilbert school administrator, noted the disturbing trend by networking with school administrators and friends, colleagues and fellow parents on East Valley social media sites. What she found shocked her and persuaded her to launch the conference as a call to action.
“It is my hope that this is the beginning, that we turn this tragedy into a legacy,” McPherson said.
Natalia Chimbo-Andrade, director of education and community outreach with Community Bridges, a major East Valley behavioral services provider, said she has heard that a dozen teenagers in the region killed themselves during the past year.
She said suicide statistics are sometimes hazy because of the stigma attached. A death might be classified as accidental, for instance, instead of suicide.
CDC data reported by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention ranks suicide as the eighth-leading cause of death in Arizona, with 1,276 people taking their own lives in 2015.
Suicide is the leading cause of death for people 10-14 years old and the second leading cause of death for those 15-34.
An Arizona Department of Health Services report for 2015 logged 10 suicides by children 14 or younger and 60 by those 15 to 19. The majority were white males.
Before the meeting, McPherson arranged a meeting of East Valley school superintendents at the school.
Glenn “Max” McGee, superintendent of the Palo Alto School District in Palo Alto, California, briefed them on how he dealt with a suicide cluster and how to prevent such deaths.
“I am hoping that school district officials who have the power and money will work as partners with us and mobilize,” McPherson said. “We need pervasive, ongoing programming.”
Chimbo-Andrade provided Suicide Alertness Training last week to 151 staff members with Gilbert Public Schools. The training helps educators recognize people who might be having suicidal thoughts and to connect them with the help they need. Those receiving the SafeTALK training included counselors, nurses, psychologists and school administrative staff.
“With the recent loss to suicides the East Valley has experienced, it’s nice to work with districts that understand the importance of evidence-based training and prevention efforts to keep their schools and students safe,” Chimbo-Andrade said.
She hopes more school districts will contact her to seek training. And she recommends confronting people – asking them if they plan to kill themselves – if warning signs are present. Research shows many suicidal people are ambiguous about whether they want to live or die, Chimbo-Andrade said.
“You are not going to plant a seed,” she said. “Part of them wants to live and part of them wants to die. Asking them shows genuine concern. Reaching out to someone says ‘I care.’”
The Gurian Institute’s work includes study and training sessions on how the brains of boys and girls develop differently and how teachers and parents can reach them. McPherson said the female brain is fully developed at 22, the male brain at 30.
“Boys are much more likely to execute” suicide, she said. “Boys don’t tell anyone. They turn inward and not outward. Girls are much more likely to attempt but not complete suicide.”
Parents are urged to keep a close watch on their teenagers’ cellphones. “I call it the phone check,” Chandler police Officer Kevin Quinn said. “You have to know what your kids are putting into these things. Everything is in the phone.”
Experts at the conference said warning signs can be cryptic or not exist at all.
LeAnn Hull, a businesswoman from north Phoenix, formed Andy Hull’s Sunshine Foundation after her son, a promising left-handed pitcher on the Sandra Day O’Connor High School baseball team, shot himself to death in December 2012.
On a Saturday night, “He said, ‘Mom, if you knew what is going on in my head, it would scare you,’” Hull said.
On the following Tuesday, Andy came home from school at lunchtime, watched a music video and apparently mimicked it by shooting himself with a gun, she said.
“You have to respond to the one message. I didn’t hear it,” Hull said.
Hull also spoke to the Tempe Unified High School District board Sept. 6 about the importance of suicide awareness and has spoken to school boards around the U.S. “Had there been any education and awareness presented at our schools… I honestly believe my son would be here,” Hull said.
She said some schools resist addressing the topic. “I get a lot of pushback from educators and administrators” who say, ‘They don’t need something else to do.’ … A lot of districts are not brave enough to talk about this subject.”
While that attitude may have persisted in the East Valley at one point, school officials seem to be recognizing teen suicide is an epidemic that must be addressed.
At Gilbert Public Schools, each school has a behavioral health team comprising a social worker, counselor, nurse and school psychologist, said Jon Castelhano, executive director of technology.
Students and family can be referred to the behavioral health team in a number of ways – as a self-referral, or via the team, a teacher, family or community agency.
“That team can better get in there and address some of those needs,” Castelhano said.
The district also provides depression awareness and suicide prevention education to students and staff, as part of an SOS (“Signs of Suicide”) prevention program.
Those prevention programs have been successful in “increasing help being sought by students concerned about themselves or a friend,” Castelhano said.
The behavioral health team takes that referral and sets in motion steps to work with the student.
Since 2013, the Chandler Unified School District has been training teachers to recognize the early warning signs of suicide, said Meg Gianesello, executive director of educational programs.
“Students who present suicidal ideations meet immediately with a counselor, school psychologist or social worker,” she wrote in an email. “Parents are always contacted. If the student needs immediate attention, crisis hotlines are called.”
Recently, junior high and high school students viewed a suicide prevention video in recognition of National Suicide Prevention Week and were given an opportunity to speak with counselors.