Advocates are seeking expanded access to mental health services and suicide prevention information and programs to provide a lifeline for Arizona youth who are facing challenges or are in crisis.
It’s especially critical, because suicide is the leading cause of death for kids 10 to 14 years old, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for people 15 to 34 years old in Arizona, said Denise Schatt-Denslow, who co-founded The JEM Foundation with her husband Ben Denslow, after they lost their son Jacob to suicide in 2016.
“Approximately four times as many people die by suicide in Arizona than by homicide,” said Schatt-Denslow. “Suicide devastates families. Suicide is on the rise, yet little is being done. It has to change.”
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The JEM Foundation focuses on suicide prevention, support for those struggling with mental illness along with their loved ones, and education to help bring awareness to suicide and end the stigma that surrounds it, Ben Denslow said.
“One of the reasons I love the JEM foundation is because one of their primary goals is to be a support system for families with children who are living with mental illnesses,” said Carly Fleege, public affairs associate at Hamilton Consulting, who lost her 22-year-old sister Carlene to suicide last year. “They want to create a community for parents where everyone in the room just gets it. And they want to foster a safe place for these families to discuss their day-to-day challenges.”
It’s important to know that suicide is preventable, and mental health care is at the nexus of prevention, because 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental health condition,” Fleege said.
“People, like my sister, spend years quietly telling themselves that there is something wrong and unworthy inside of them,” Fleege said. “They don’t understand their own illness, they don’t have a name for it and they don’t seek treatment. Their loved ones may notice that something is amiss, but they may not understand the depth of what is happening and therefore struggle to determine what they can do to help.”
Fleege started a blog to tell her sister’s story and her own, and she said the most meaningful post so far was about how her sister saved a stranger’s life.
“I think everyone who touches the lives of our youth needs to also be vigilant and keep an eye out for warning signs,” Fleege said. “This probably means that more people need to take the step to become educated and trained in things like Mental Health First Aid. It’s a free program. You can Google it and find classes being taught near you.”
Action at the legislature
Earlier Thursday, these advocates testified before the Arizona Senate’s Commerce and Public Safety Committee about their concerns after they heard about the possible elimination of a provision in the Governor’s proposed School Safety Plan that calls for teachers, principals and other school staff who work with children in sixth- through twelfth-grade receive evidence-based training in suicide prevention, warning signs and intervention and referral techniques.
“The suicide prevention training component – I give you my word that I’ll continue to work on that,” said Sen. Steve Smith during the hearing.
The amended bill was approved by the committee by a vote of 4 ayes and 3 nays, with 1 member abstaining from the vote.
The Arizona Legislature should consider approaching suicide prevention and mental health access “in a similar manner to the opioid epidemic with a state task force to study the issue, develop a state plan, provide recommendations, and monitor the effects of the plan,” Fleege said
Key components of that plan should include providing training to teachers and staff in suicide prevention, providing funding for districts to employ school psychologists and counselors, ensuring and enforcing mental health parity, ensuring K-12 health curriculum that include age-appropriate, easy to understand, accessible information on mental illness and create a legislative study committee to create recommendations on how to reduce suicide rates in youth, Fleege said.
What we can do
Adults must be willing to talk about suicide or the burden will continue to be on children who aren’t capable of managing this difficult topic, said LeAnn Hull, who founded Andy Hull’s Sunshine Foundation after losing her 16-year-old son Andy to suicide.
“If we can learn to tune our ears into the warning signs that are often so difficult to distinguish, then maybe we can save a life,” Hull said. “Education and awareness is the key to ending this tragic form of death.”
While kids are not afraid to talk about suicide, they are not equipped to deal with it on their own, “they need tools and adult resources to support their journey,” Hull said.
“They are actually much more creative in the ways that they are dealing with their challenges than the adults surrounding them,” Hull said. “With the continued efforts on their part, maybe we can bring the non-communicative adults into the conversation and dialogue to help find solutions to suicide.”
Teens say they wish more people, especially at schools, really understood the complexity and severity of depression or understand the signs of mental illness, Schatt-Denslow said.
“They want help, and they want their teachers to be able to help them,” Schatt-Denslow said. “Students want their educators to understand that sometimes when a kid says, ‘I am good,’ it really means the exact opposite.”
Many youth have said they don’t feel schools are doing enough suicide prevention and education, they want the school to feel safe talking about it, they want to know how to prevent it, and many are supportive of including it in the school curriculum, Schatt-Denslow said.
A simple way Arizona schools could help is by providing information for Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Crisis Text Line on the backs of student ID cards, Fleege said.
In Arizona, Teen Lifeline provides the information on the back of student IDs like the one pictured here, said Jessica Gonzalez, a public relations specialist for the group.
Teen Lifeline at (602) 248-8336 (TEEN) is a statewide peer hotline for teens that is staffed by volunteer peer counselors between the ages of 15 and 19 from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. daily, Gonzalez said.
Teen Lifeline peer counselors also respond to texts to the same number from 3-9 p.m. daily.
“I think this is a small step toward promoting and normalizing help seeking behavior,” Fleege said. “In addition, if that resource could be at the fingertips and top of mind for these students, it could save a life.”
What’s happening here
A group of East Valley moms and advocates have been keeping track of youth suicides, and sadly, the current estimate, based on the incidents they are aware of, is 23 youth suicides in the East Valley this academic year, Fleege said.
“Too many of our children are dying, and that’s why I believe our education system is an appropriate place to start when it comes to policy and social changes,” Fleege said.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, half of all lifetime cases of mental illnesses begin by age 14, and 75 percent begin by age 24. Also, the average delay between the onset of symptoms and intervention is between eight to 10 years, 37 percent of students with mental health conditions drop out of school, and 70% of kids in the juvenile justice system have a mental health condition, according to NAMI.
“This is clearly a crucial time in a child’s development,” Fleege said. “There is a critical window of opportunity to recognize the onset of these symptoms and get students the care they need before things get too bad.”
Counselors say kids are dealing with a lot and the pressure they put on themselves, and parents put on their children is a huge factor that can lead to issues like anxiety and depression, he said.
Parents say they don’t feel as if they have the appropriate resources to help their kids, they’re terrified for their child, and they don’t always know what to do, Denslow said.
“They don’t feel the state really cares about this issue. They want more support and more resources,” he said.
“To the parents listening: you are your child’s best and oftentimes only advocate, never apologize for doing what is in your child’s best interests, but also remember that teachers work very hard for our kids and they care, work with them,” Schatt-Denslow said.
What Timothy’s Law is
Parents should also know that there is a huge discrepancy between the mental health care that a child on Medicare can receive compared with what a child on private insurance may receive, Schatt-Denslow said.
“I am grateful and hopeful that Medicare is doing more and providing more services for mental health. Unfortunately, many private insurance companies are falling behind. That is why we are pushing to bring Timothy’s Law to Arizona,” Schatt-Denslow said.
Timothy’s Law requires that health plans sold in New York provide comparable coverage for mental health as for physical health and took effect in December 2006.
For example, the average hospital stay for a child with suicidal ideation is three to five days because that is all insurance will often cover, yet it can take four to six weeks to know how the child will react to medications they’re put on, Schatt-Denslow said.
“Mental health needs to be an acceptable part of our screening processes. Just like breast cancer, heart disease, eyes and ears, etc. We can apply the same type of early detection and solutions before they become a tragedy,” Hull said.
People don’t seem to be afraid to be seen at a cancer clinic, yet some, like my sister, didn’t want her car seen in the parking lot of a therapist’s office, Fleege asked.
“Why is it that people will rally around families with children battling cancer by offering to help run errands, bring meals, pick up groceries, babysit, etc., but we never see this offered to families with children battling severe mental illnesses?” Fleege asks. “If you’re thinking to yourself, because it’s just different, I would encourage you to ask yourself why.”
“We have to first talk about it and make it safe for others to share their difficulties, and then we can find resources to help them maneuver through their struggles,” Hull said. “As long as it is hidden in the dark and shameful to talk about, we cannot deal with it or prevent it. Only then will we change these staggering statistics.”