News Article Details

EV parents taking the lead in teen suicide prevention

Tribune - 9/24/2018

Sept. 23--Denise and Ben Denslow, LeAnn Hull and Tim Warnock know the endless pain a parent suffers when their child dies by suicide.

That's why the three attended a Chandler Unified School Board meeting, urging that the district pay more attention to the heartbreaking problem.

Their pleas came in the wake of two apparent teen suicides reported within a week in Chandler and Queen Creek earlier this month -- bringing to at least 18 the number that have occurred in the East Valley since July 2017. One victim was 10 years old.

The grieving parents are part of a grassroots effort to save other children, knowing that it is too late to save their own.

"I don't want another family to go through this. No family should feel so lost," said Denise Schatt-Denslow of Gilbert, whose 15-year-old son, Jacob Edward Machovsky, a Corona Del sol High School freshman, killed himself on Jan. 16, 2016.

"This isn't a nightmare. You get to wake up from a nightmare," she said. "The best way to honor him is to save another child."

The parents -- along with many East Valley school districts, including Gilbert Public Schools -- are acting as state officials have yet to fill a suicide prevention coordinator position that the Legislature created in May.

Lorie Warnock, an English teacher at Mountain Pointe High School in Ahwatukee, started advocating for more teachers to get training on suicide after her son, Mitchell, 16, a Corona del Sol High School champion pole-vaulter, took his life in October 2016.

Warnock helped form Parents for Suicide Prevention, one of several grassroots organizations that are loosely affiliated through Facebook groups.

"It's advocating for social and emotional wellness," she said. "It's taken this long to get this kind of momentum and support in order for the training to occur."

Warnock's work paid off in an unprecedented manner this week when the Tempe Union High School District became the first district in the state to provide suicide prevention training to its entire staff -- from school bus drivers to teachers and principals.

Katey McPherson, an education consultant and suicide prevention advocate, praised former Tempe Union Superintendent Kenneth Baca for laying the groundwork for the training -- completed under the watch of current Superintendent Kevin Mendivil.

Schatt-Denslow's husband, Ben Denslow, said he is pleased with the progress in addressing the issue since last year -- when McPherson spotted an alarming suicide cluster in the East Valley.

But he said prevention advocates are still fighting against the stigma attached to suicide.

McPherson's unofficial count, compiled from her contacts in the education community, noted that there 18 teen suicides between July and November in 2017.

The national Centers for Disease Control rank suicide as the second-leading cause of death in Arizona for the 15-24 age brackets, with 152 people in that age group taking their own lives in 2016.

"We are comfortable enough that we are willing to talk about it. Now, we have to get to the point where we are willing to do something about it," Ben Denslow, Jacob's stepfather, said.

The coalition of parents decided to make a personal appeal to school boards after a bill failed in the Legislature that would have required all Arizona teachers to receive suicide prevention training.

Instead, the legislature created a new suicide prevention specialist position as part of the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System that "is in the process of being filled" to coordinate efforts to fight suicide, said Heidi Capriotti, an AHCCC spokeswoman.

"By funding this position, the state of Arizona and its elected leaders recognize the public health crisis and have made suicide prevention a priority," she said in a statement.

"With this dedicated resource, we expect coordinated efforts across agencies and advocacy organizations to amplify the message that suicide is preventable, that resources exist to help those considering suicide and their families, and that we can eliminate the stigma around mental illness that keeps people from seeking help."

But McPherson, a longtime educator and a suicide prevention advocate, said students need help in school from people trained to recognize the early signs of suicide.

Although East Valley school districts all seem to care about the issue, their response is inconsistent, she said.

She praised the Gilbert Public Schools, Tempe Union, Kyrene, and Mesa Public Schools for having mental health professionals assigned to schools but said others are lagging behind.

Overall, McPherson gives the Arizona school districts a C plus.

"We need to do prevention, rather than intervention," McPherson said, noting that depends on being able to recognize tell-tale signs of suicidal tendencies and getting children help before they either attempt or complete suicide.

"I would say they are all paying attention," McPherson said of East Valley school districts, but some "are slow to move."

McPherson, the Denslows and Hull, of north Phoenix, north Phoenix, all decided to speak at a Chandler Unified School District meeting after the district showed a video about teen suicide to students in recognition of September as Suicide Prevention Month.

Students were asked to fill out a survey after the video and to report whether they or any of their fellow students have had suicidal thoughts.

A 14-year-old girl reported that she had attempted suicide in the past and had been having suicidal thoughts, McPherson said. The girl met with a counselor, who attempted to call her mother and left a voicemail message when she didn't answer.

McPherson said the girl was sent home on a bus.

She said no one was home for about two hours, leaving plenty of time for the girl to attempt suicide, though she fortunately never did.

McPherson said it is negligent for any school administrator -- or anyone considered a mandatory reporter under state law -- to send a student with suicidal thoughts home without making sure a parent is present to get the student help.

She said the system worked properly in another incident at a Chandler junior high school, where students watched the same video. A friend reported that a classmate had suicidal thoughts, and the youth was properly turned over to his parents.

"The system works when adults do their job," McPherson said.

Ben Denslow said Chandler's approach is inadequate. He urged Chandler school board members to follow the lead of other districts by training teachers to recognize the signs of suicide.

"It's takes more than a video," Denslow said.

Terry Locke, a district spokesman, said he cannot comment directly on the incident involving the 14-year-old girl because of privacy rules. He released a statement that acknowledged a communications gaffe with the parent but did not address the incident otherwise.

"Our efforts to help parents address issues related to suicide prevention include administering of the Risk Assessment Referral Data assessment to all student in grades 7-12," Locke said.

"Our protocol is to call parents when students respond that they have suicidal ideation," Locke wrote. "We had a case last week where staff failed to follow the protocol. In addition to voice mails, they should have continued to call until they reach a live voice.

"Brenda Ramos, our director of counseling and social services, is looking into the matter and following up to ensure it doesn't happen in the future district wide."

At a recent meeting, the Chandler school board approved a contract with Southwest Behavioral Health Services to help students with mental health issues.

Gilbert, Mesa and Kyrene school officials all said they have a commitment to educating "the whole child," with academic success closely intertwined with social and emotional well-being.

Citing the enormous stress created by social media and other factors, those districts are paying more attention to developing students' coping skills.

At the same time, they also are encouraging students to come forward and tell a trusted adult when they think a classmate may be at risk.

All Gilbert schools have social workers assigned to them that know how to recognize the early warning signs of suicide.

Teachers and students receive suicide prevention training in grades five through 12, and each campus has a behavioral health team, said Marcie Taylor, director of secondary education.

The teams include the social worker, the school psychologist, a nurse and councilors with a deeper level of suicide prevention training, she said.

"It's to help alleviate the stigma attached to this topic," Taylor said. "We believe strongly in prevention education."

Mesa Public Schools uses a similar approach, with social workers assigned to most schools and Crisis Management Teams in place to spot the early signs of suicide.

"We realize our students are whole human beings," said Michael Garcia, director of opportunity and achievement. "It's' not just academic but the social and emotion needs" of students.

Dino Recla, Mesa's prevention counselor, said the focus is on identifying students who are having suicidal thoughts and getting them the help they need.

Recla recommended that parents view a documentary film, "Suicide: the Ripple Effect," to help them learn how to spot the early warning signs in their children.

Renee Kory, principal of Kyrene Aprende Middle School in Chandler, said teachers at her school were saddened when some of their graduates took their lives while attending Corona.

"The teachers approached me and said, 'we can't be losing any more kids," Kory said. "We always have Teen Lifeline do a presentation to our staff about suicide risk awareness."

Any student identified as having suicidal thoughts is evaluated by a team of school administrators, counselors and psychologists, who ask specific questions aimed at evaluating a student's level of risk in completing suicide.

Students also take the Signs of Suicide class, which teaches them to recognize early indications of suicidal thoughts and to notify an adult so that a troubled child can get help.

McPherson said she applauds the efforts of progressive school districts that are focused on doing everything they can to prevent suicide. She said her heart breaks for the Warnocks, the Denslows and other parents who have lost a child to suicide.

"It's a club that no one should be part of, and it is so preventable," McPherson said. "My goal is not to have that club add any new members."

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(c)2018 East Valley Tribune (Mesa, Ariz.)

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