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March 2, 2024

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4 student suicides in less than two months send shocks through Boise schools

'It seems like our youth just doesn’t have the support that they need to navigate through today’s problems'

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BOISE, Idaho — It was mid-November, and hundreds of candles flickered on the Hillside Junior High School field where eighth grader Kade Parrish once played baseball.

Students, parents and community members were gathered at a candlelight vigil to grieve the loss of at least the fourth Boise School District student to die by suicide since the start of October.

Junior high students held one another; their sobs mingled with tearful laughter when someone began a story with, “Remember how Kade would always … .” His parents tried to thank the crowd but quickly broke down as they struggled to get the words out.

Laura Bainbridge’s teenage son does not attend Hillside, but she said she felt compelled to go to the vigil.

“I went to just show support and love and give some hugs,” Bainbridge said. “We hugged strangers. It just felt like it was bringing awareness to a really important issue.”

That issue — young people taking their own lives — has caused concern for Boise students, parents, educators and mental health advocates.

From 2020 through 2022, the Boise Police Department said, it didn’t respond to any juvenile suicides.

In 2023, it has responded to five. Four of those have occurred since Oct. 5. Police spokesperson Haley Williams said there could be additional deaths not included in those response numbers. Deaths may be handled by other authorities, such as a hospital or coroner’s office.

The recent Boise School District suicides — confirmed through family members, school district emails and other people in the school community — include one student at Boise High, one at Hillside Junior High and two at North Junior High.

The Ada County Coroner’s Office said it has recorded eight juvenile suicides since August, and mental health advocates told the Statesman that additional student deaths by suicide had been reported outside of Ada County in nearby rural communities, including Mountain Home and Horseshoe Bend.

Bainbridge said that as she’s watched a string of suicides hit the community, finding ways to talk to her children about mental health has been difficult. She has watched her son, who she said knew the Boise High victim, try to help their mutual friends through the loss.

“As a parent, it’s absolutely heartbreaking,” Bainbridge said. “It’s devastating and it’s terrifying. It seems like our youth just doesn’t have the support that they need to navigate through today’s problems.”

Students, parents grapple with deaths

When someone dies by suicide, it can send shock waves through a community.

“It’s a cascade effect. … It just kind of goes to show the impact of these kinds of losses and how they affect everybody else downstream,” said Stewart Wilder, who lost his 17-year-old son to suicide in 2013 and co-founded the Idaho Suicide Prevention Coalition.

One risk factor for teenagers is exposure to suicide, which can create a vicious circle, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Maisa McCall, an eighth grader at North Junior High, loved art, history and spending time with her family in the outdoors. Her “sarcastic wit was drier than the Sahara Desert,” and some of her happiest memories were spent “camping and playing in the dirt,” according to an obituary written by her mother, Samia McCall.

“Her head was full of facts, knowledge and feelings about the world,” Samia wrote in the obituary. “Unfortunately, at some point during the cross-section of the COVID-19 pandemic and puberty, her beautiful mind became her worst enemy.”

Maisa died by suicide on Nov. 2, less than a month after a classmate’s suicide, Samia said.

Samia told the Statesman that her daughter’s struggles predated her classmate’s death — she had sent an email to the school board in 2022 concerning the effects of pandemic procedures on student mental health.

“We talked about (the classmate’s death) and were under the impression that she was shocked and upset, and that it had impacted her in such a way that she understood the lasting devastation that suicide leaves on family, friends and community and therefore would not do it,” Samia told the Statesman in an email.

Samia said she hopes parents understand that depression isn’t always the cause of suicide. The act can be impulsive or a way to relieve severe anxiety, she said, and she’d like to see more support and resources for neurodivergent students.

Boise schools launch crisis teams, events for parents

Parents have been inundated with Boise School District emails about mental health and suicide prevention, but they’ve not been provided many details about what has happened. Kade’s death was the only one described as a suicide by school officials, and that note went only to parents at select schools. Parents in the rest of the district received emails referencing mental health and suicide with little explanation for why they were receiving them.

“In only a few short weeks, our crisis response team has been called into action for multiple student deaths and one teacher death,” a Nov. 7 district email stated. “In some cases, the death was the result of an accident, while others have been suicide. And these are just the tragedies we know about.”

Lucas Fitzpatrick, a social studies teacher at Fairmont Junior High School, died suddenly Oct. 19, according to an Idaho Education Association social media post.

The school district told the Statesman that one email also referenced the death of Boise High student Jadin Zurawski, 16, who was killed Aug. 10 when he was hit by a truck while skateboarding near downtown.

The district has put crisis teams in place at each of the schools where a suicide or other death has occurred. Officials also have shared mental health resources to parents across the district and have begun to launch community meetings educating parents on suicide prevention and resources. One such event for families is taking place Thursday at Boise High.

Some of the vague language used by the district in emails has not necessarily been by choice, according to spokesperson Dan Hollar. After Boise police respond to a juvenile suicide, they notify school officials, who then reach out to family. The Boise School District can state that a child died by suicide only if permitted by parents or guardians, Hollar said.

School board member Shiva Rajbhandari, who graduated from Boise High in the spring and is attending college at the University of North Carolina, said he understands families’ preference for privacy while grieving and also the frustrations of people who might be seeking answers and information.

“It makes sense when you’re mourning, but when parents do allow us to share the cause of death, we’re able to have a much more structured intervention,” he told the Statesman in a phone interview.

It’s important to erase suicide stigma, experts say

Teresa Abbott, manager of the Idaho Health and Welfare Department’s state Council on Suicide Prevention, stressed the importance of removing any shame from a discussion of suicide. Just avoiding the word can make teenagers feel that suicidal thoughts are disgraceful and influence them not to seek help if they’re having those thoughts, Abbott said.

Fallon Baraga, St. Luke’s suicide-prevention program manager, said the sooner adults begin talking to adolescents about suicide — and letting children know it’s fine to have such talks — the better.

“Instead of keeping it secret, keeping it among kids, they (should) know: ‘There are these people in my life who can handle this. I won’t get in trouble. I won’t freak them out,’” Baraga told the Statesman. “I’m able to voice this probably really scary thought and talk about it.”

Idaho had the 12th-highest suicide rate in the country in 2022 and the fifth-highest youth rate from 1999 to 2020, according to the CDC and Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Teens are about 11 times more likely to die by suicide than homicide in Idaho, according to the office.

A 2022 Boise School District mental health survey found that 29 percent of junior high students and 34 percent of high school students had thoughts of suicide one or more times in the previous six months.

Boise mayor gets involved

The school district is not alone trying to offer services. The wider community has banded together to try to address the rise in suicides.

Boise Mayor Lauren McLean convened a meeting with 40 people — from law enforcement, health care, the school district, nonprofits, government and philanthropy partners — on Nov. 20 to discuss suicide prevention and support for those affected by recent losses, city spokesperson Jill Youmans said.

“I’m heartbroken by the pain our community is suffering,” McLean said in a statement sent to the Statesman. “As a mom, I’m heartbroken for the pain these students endured and the loss that will mark their friends and families. We are all grieving.”

Youmans noted that the city has invested nearly $2 million in the past year into community organizations that provide mental health services.

Experts look at teen suicide factors

Gretchen Gudmundsen, a psychologist at St. Luke’s Children’s Center for Neurobehavioral Medicine, said that while every case is unique, there are common factors among teen suicide victims parents should know to look for.

Two of the most important ones are feelings of social isolation and experiences of humiliation or shame, Gudmundsen said.

Experts interviewed by the Statesman mentioned social isolation again and again while talking about suicide. They said the COVID-19 pandemic and increased use of screens may have exacerbated feelings of loneliness among teens.

Megan Smith, a Boise State University professor who studies mental health in young people, said it’s not just about the quantity of time that teenagers spend with others — but also about the quality.

“Some people, when they hear social isolation, think of alienation or the isolated kid,” Smith said. “And that certainly could be true. But really, what this variable is looking at is deep, meaningful relationships, authentic relationships where we can be our full self.”

Need help?

Experts also emphasized that suicide is preventable and treatment works for most people who seek help. Suicide-prevention hotlines are available for people who feel suicidal, or people who are concerned about a loved one and need guidance or resources. All calls are confidential and anonymous. The following resources are available any time of day:

• Call or text Idaho’s crisis line at 988.

• Call or text the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline at 208-398-4357.

• Chat online with the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline at idahosuicideprevention.org.

• The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 800-273-8255. Callers may use English or Spanish.

• The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline also offers an online chat option for people who may be deaf or hearing impaired at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

• Access free counseling for local families and students through the BPA Health Student and Family Assistance Program by calling 833-935-3816.

• Join support groups for Boise teens through Warm Springs Counseling Center or Noble Intent.

• If you are feeling like you want to harm yourself, providers encourage you to seek medical assistance immediately. Any local emergency room could offer assistance.

The Speedy Foundation is holding an online suicide-prevention training at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, and the Boise School District is hosting a community conversation on mental health at 6 p.m. Thursday at Boise High School.

Warning signs

According to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, some people with suicidal tendencies may exhibit the following symptoms:

• Talking or writing about suicide

• Isolation or withdrawal

• Agitation, especially combined with sleeplessness

• Nightmares

• Seeking methods to kill oneself

• Feeling hopeless or trapped

• Co-occurring depression, moodiness and hopelessness

• Unexplained anger, aggression or irritability

• Recent loss of family member or friend through divorce, suicide or other death

• Changes in eating, sleeping, personal care or other patterns

• Increased alcohol or drug use

• Taking unnecessary risks/recklessness

• No longer interested in favorite activities or hobbies

How to help your child

Gretchen Gudmundsen, a psychologist at St. Luke’s Children’s Center for Neurobehavioral Medicine, shared her top pieces of advice for parents.

• Make sure teens have someone they feel safe with when it comes to discussing mental health. If they seem reluctant to talk, see whether they will share with another adult in their life, such as an aunt or uncle, or a coach.

• If a child is struggling, reduce access to potential means of harm. This reduces a person’s “potential to act on a whim,” according to Gudmundsen. Studies have found that teens are three to four times more likely to die by suicide if they have access to a firearm.

• Set social media boundaries. Gudmundsen recommended parents treat their child’s social media accounts the same way they treat their bedrooms. Respect their privacy, but make sure to take a look around every once in a while, especially if a child is exhibiting concerning behavior. Gudmundsen also suggested that parents create their own accounts on Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat so they can follow their children.

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