Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of stories that will run each Tuesday through the month of May in which different mental health challenges and solutions are explored.
In the 2016-2017 school year, Chris Douglas said she learned of seven adolescents who died by suicide.
“Seven in our county,” Douglas said. “It’s usually zero or one, and that’s horrible!”
Douglas is the chief executive officer of Communities in Schools-South Central Texas — which is part of the fourth largest child-serving organization in the country. She said that fact often gets lost because over its 25 year history it works through the schools.
“First of all, I was trying to find out if these kids know each other, were there any similar schools, like were they talking to each other? Because there is such a thing called cluster suicides,” Douglas said.
They found no such connections, but Douglas said after talking to state authorities she found out Comal County did not have an active child fatality review team.
Putting a team together
That is no longer the case.
“What we do in that team is we evaluate or look at all the deaths of children here to see if there’s something that we can do to help people prevent these deaths,” Douglas said.
According to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, the Child Fatality Review Team consists of a multi-agency group that reviews all child deaths regardless of the cause. It oversees and assists the work of local review teams in Texas, including DFPS, and develops a “big picture” view of childhood mortality.
The TDFPS also said the purpose of the CFRT Program is to improve the response to child fatalities, provide accurate information on how and why Texas children are dying and reduce the number of preventable child deaths by taking data into prevention practice.
One example Douglas gives is drowning prevention.
There are two drownings a year on average that are kids here in Comal County.
“Well we have a high propensity for drowning because we’ve got lots of swimming pools and we’ve got two rivers, and we’ve got Canyon Lake,” Douglas said. “So there’s a high chance for kids to drown.
Some of the things the CFR would do is encourage people to get free swimming lessons if they were available or provide life jackets.
“The Comal River provides free life jackets for every entrance to the river, which is awesome because that is one way they are trying their best to prevent suicides,” Douglas said.
Nevertheless, there have been suicides in the Comal River, and she said it’s people who are choosing not to use a life jacket.
Looking at the research
In April, the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry released a study looking at Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” and the suicide rate.
The show was released on March 31, 2017, and the study found that the overall suicide rate among 10-to-17-year-olds increased monthly after the show’s release.
According to the Center for Disease Control, suicide rates in Texas increased by approximately 19% between 1999 and 2016.
For the 2017-2018 school year, Douglas approached the superintendents of Comal and New Braunfels school districts and told them CIS wanted to execute the suicide prevention program in all of the schools.
They both agreed, Douglas said.
Now, CIS has counselors that can come to the school and see kids once a week for therapeutic counseling to help them address mental issues they’re dealing with, whether it’s depression or anxiety or other signs of mental health.
“And then after that, we realize that the suicidal thoughts were just too much,” Douglas said. “So we had started to join a program called ‘Signs of Suicide.’”
Signs of Suicide is a nationally recognized high school and middle school suicide prevention program that teaches youths and adolescents how to identify and help themselves and their peers, as well as reduce the stigma.
“It teaches kids the difference between sadness and depression,” Douglas said. “It gives them the language to use because no one talks about that, no one talks about mental health.”
She said CIS wanted to teach them that it’s not okay to feel like they want to die, and if they feel like that, they can get better.
“What kids think is like tunnel vision,” Douglas said. “All they think is they’re going to live with these feelings, or I’m going to die, and so what we wanted to help them see they can help their friends, you can help yourself by talking to someone and getting better.”
Local data breakdown
The program also allowed CIS to give surveys for students to answer seven questions about their behavior, which provides them with demographic information.
According to the 2017-2018 statistics on Lifeguardfunds.org, a total of 5,209 students are receiving the SOS program. From that, 14.8% were considered critical responses.
Additionally, the assessment provided the factors contributing to the critical responses. The highest four were family conflict (47%), personal relationships (16%), and third, academic stress and organic mental health issue tied (12%).
“You’re asking them things that are behaviors related to depression,” Douglas said.
Afterward, Douglas said they take the surveys back, and they have a coordinator who checks to see which students have answered yes to a pair of questions — “Do you think seriously about killing yourself?” or “Have you tried to kill yourself in the last year?”
If anyone answers yes to those questions, they call them in from class in the next period.
“We have four licensed counselors that are sitting there ready to talk to them,” Douglas said. “We bring them in. It’s not our staff nor the school counselors. It’s people whose job is only to talk to them because otherwise you’ll get pulled away to something else.”
She said this is too critically important.
“What we do then is we find out what’s going on with each child,” Douglas said. “Find out why they are feeling this way. ‘Have you talked to someone about it?’ ‘Do you have the means to do this?’
A suicide assessment is done to see how serious the situation is. Depending on the severity, the student talks with the school counselors and they may even call in the Mental Health Authority to assess them.
“We’ve had a number of students that have gone straight to the psychiatric hospital,” Douglas said. “And the difference is we asked the question. We didn’t wait for the student to make an attempt. We took action by asking the question, and we’re helping to identify kids ahead of time and helping to get them on the right track.”
The effort does have a cost — an estimated $280,000 to $300,000 a year. The money for these services allows CIS to continue funding for counseling in the schools, as well as the SOS program.
The group hopes to continue to have the funds to offer the services.
“Now we have several foundations that want to see it continue, but they aren’t sure they can pay for the whole amount,” Douglas said. “We know that they want to help support it, but they can’t do it all.”
A fund was started at the New Braunfels area Community Foundation called the Lifeguards Fund, which can pay for the mental health efforts.