Schools eye prevention in wake of suicides

2 students at Chief Umtuch in Battle Ground died in recent weeks

By Tyler Graf and Susan Parrish

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Related story

Forums target teen suicide awareness, prevention

Cyberbullying

What to do when you’re being cyberbullied:

Don’t reply.

Save the evidence. Do a print screen of the online conversation.

Block the sender.

Tell an adult.

Resources

Clark County NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill): 360-695-2823.

Clark County Crisis Line — 24-hour mental health consult and intervention: 360-696-9560.

Clark County Teen Talk — Non-judgmental peer-to-peer support: 360-397-CHAT.

Stepping Stones — Grief counseling: 360-696-5100.

Survivor of Suicide Support Group: Vancouver 503-285-8008; Portland 503-236-8444.

Sources:

Trauma Intervention Program of Portland/Vancouver; Youth Suicide Prevention Program.

photoSarah Miller, 14, and Madison Schumacher, 14, eighth-grade students at Chief Umtuch Middle School, advocate for students being proactive and seeking help if they experience bullying. After two classmates committed suicide about six weeks apart, Principal Dave Cresap sent a letter home to parents informing them about bullying on Facebook and the term "frenemy." In a Columbian interview, he said, "Suicide has hit us pretty hard. It's important that kids get a message of hope."

(/The Columbian)

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BATTLE GROUND — Within six weeks of each other, two Battle Ground teenagers committed suicide, leaving a community asking why.

In December and January, Isabelle Sarkinen and Anna Ishikawa, both eighth-graders at Chief Umtuch Middle School in Battle Ground, took their own lives. The deaths shocked parents, students and teachers. Battle Ground had seen just two youth suicides in the first 11 months of 2012.

Mental health professionals and school officials across the county say they’re working to reduce the incidence of youth suicide through prevention.

“Suicide has hit us pretty hard. Lately, things have become intensified,” said David Cresap, principal of Chief Umtuch Middle School. “We’re all scared. We realize it’s bigger than we are. We want it to stop.”

Cresap sent a letter home with students addressing the suicides and warning parents of some of the alarming aspects of social media — in particular, the on-again, off-again nature of online friendships.

Cresap’s letter recommended that parents monitor their children’s social media accounts or, in some cases, shut them down completely.

The staff at Chief Umtuch has aggressively addressed the issues of teen suicides, bullying and cyberbullying, Cresap said.

Community outreach

Over the years, high-profile teen suicides have entered the public consciousness as a very real and dangerous mental health issue. Battle Ground in particular has worked to curb youth suicides through community-wide outreach.

The city is not the only Clark County community that’s dealt with the issue. There were seven youth suicides between 2008 and 2010 countywide, the last period for which figures are available from Clark County Public Health.

“In Battle Ground, kids are dying,” said Mary Jadwisiak, a suicide prevention trainer and field coordinator for the Youth Suicide Prevention Program for Clark and Cowlitz counties. “But countywide, it’s a real problem.”

Jadwisiak’s organization works to reduce youth suicides throughout the state. She holds regular workshops with teachers, parents and students about recognizing the warning signs of suicide.

While teen suicides remain a troubling trend — although hardly a new one, experts say — there’s rarely one root cause, Jadwisiak said.

No simple answers

A study published in the January edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association concludes that the vast majority of suicidal kids have pre-existing mental disorders.

Bullying can be a major factor in a child’s decision to commit suicide, Jadwisiak said, but the relationship isn’t always a causal one. “It’s not always that simple,” she said.

But at Chief Umtuch, Krista Roadifer, a school counselor, said cyberbullying issues are brought to school daily. “It does disrupt the day,” she said. “(Students) aren’t focused on learning. They’re worried about what was posted online about them.”

The school’s psychologist, Kelly Johnson, said the problem is intensified when kids don’t want to tell their parents they are being bullied for fear of losing their Internet privileges.

When there’s trauma such as a suicide, a team of trained counselors called the SMART team, which stands for School Mobilization Assistance Response Team, is called to help students cope.

Districts also tout other resources, such as peer groups of teens who give presentations about the warning signs of suicide.

At Cascade Middle School in Vancouver last year, a group of students — Jasea Coffield, Samantha Hicks, Emma Lewis and Shannel Unlayao — took a proactive approach to stemming the tide of student suicides by forming a group. The students, now in high school, were part of a program intended to spread awareness among teens of the factors that play a role in suicides.

The students’ work followed the suicide of a girl in the Evergreen school district.

On Friday, they received the Trevor Simpson Award from the Youth Suicide Prevention Program for their work. In 2012, the students gave 12 classroom presentations that reached more than 500 students.

Rene Corbin, an intervention specialist at Cascade Middle School, brought the peer-to-peer program to the school.

She said there are warning signs for suicide and, more often than not, other kids are the first to recognize them.

“As adults, we don’t hear everything, we don’t see everything, and we don’t know everything,” Corbin said. “Kids have a much better understanding of what’s going on in the world of kids.”

Mental health experts say there are three keys to preventing suicide: Show you care, ask whether someone has contemplated suicide and get help.

Warning signs

The Youth Suicide Prevention Program (http://www.yspp.org ) says the following signs may indicate someone is thinking about suicide. The more signs you see, the greater the risk.

• A previous suicide attempt.

• Current talk of suicide or making a plan.

• Strong wish to die or a preoccupation with death.

• Giving away prized possessions.

• Signs of depression, such as moodiness, hopelessness, withdrawal.

• Increased alcohol and/or other drug use.

• Hinting at not being around in the future or saying goodbye.

These warning signs are especially noteworthy in light of:

• A recent death or suicide of a friend or family member.

• A recent breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or conflict with parents.

• News reports of other suicides by young people in the same school or community.

Other key risk factors include:

• Readily accessible firearms.

• Impulsiveness and taking unnecessary risks.

• Lack of connection to family and friends (no one to talk to).

What to do if you see the warning signs?

"If a friend mentions suicide, take it seriously," the website says. "If he or she has expressed an immediate plan, or has access to a gun or other potentially deadly means, do not leave him or her alone. Get help immediately."