This week is National Suicide Prevention Week, and the rate of Indiana teens considering suicide is slightly higher this year compared to last year, according to the Indiana Youth Institute.
With the start of the new school year, educators in Northeast Indiana are looking for ways to improve mental health services for teens. In the first part of a series on teen mental health, WBOI’s Lisa Ryan looks at how schools are working to prevent teen suicide in Northeast Indiana.
It looks and sounds a little like a rock concert, but it’s actually an event taking place at East Allen University, a high school in rural Allen County.
Students are encouraged to take out their smartphones and tablets and answer questions about mental health. The students are asked questions about whether they have a strong support system, what they would do if they were struggling, and about their anxiety and depression levels.
The students are asked, “Do you know someone who has struggled with suicidal thinking?” As they respond, the video gives an educational message about what to do if they know someone struggling with depression.
The students’ responses to this question are pretty shocking: 84 percent of the students at East Allen University say they know someone who struggles with suicidal thinking.
This is exactly who the school’s safety manager, Jeff Studebaker, is trying to reach.
“If you hear someone, if you hear a friend talking about suicide, get them help. Take them to a counselor, take them to one of your teachers,” he said. “You hear something, say something.”
In 2015, a student at the school died by suicide. School officials decided it wasn’t enough to just train staff on what to do if a student has suicidal thoughts, they needed to train students too.
“People hear school safety, and they think active shooter or protecting kids from tornado or fire,” Studebaker said. “That is very important to me, but the whole child is important. It’s not just the physical safety, it’s the emotional well being that’s important as well.”
Studebaker says he’s seen an increase in students bringing friends to counselors and teachers.
He helped organize the suicide prevention event. Along with bringing attention to the struggles many teens face, it provides a resource for them to talk to someone. At the end of the event, they’re given a hotline number to text. The RemedyLIVE hotline is available every hour of the day. It's activated by texting the word REMEDY or LOOKUP to the number 494949. It is a faith-based organization, but religious messaging is not used during public school events.
Studebaker says after the events at schools throughout East Allen County, about 270 students repeatedly texted the hotline. On average, Studebaker says the conversations lasted around 18 minutes.
“That tells me that they’re interested and we touched a nerve and kids are looking for help,” he said.
School officials are hesitant to put too much stock in the self-reported responses during the event. But the answers do reflect a trend of teen mental health in Indiana, and it’s not good. According to 2016 research from the Indiana Youth Institute, one in five Indiana high school students have considered attempting suicide. This is the third-highest rate in the country.
Holli Seabury is the CEO of McMillen Health in Fort Wayne, which works with schools like East Allen County to provide health education. She says teens living in rural areas are especially at risk of not getting the help they need for mental health problems.
“We see across the board more poor health outcomes with our rural populations,” she said. “They have less access to services, they see less health messaging, they have less resources.”
Seabury says schools in rural areas have fewer specialized staff to help students, but she says the East Allen County School district is an example of effective suicide prevention policies.
Seabury says it’s unclear why so many teens in Indiana are thinking about suicide, but it could be because they don’t feel like there are many opportunities for the future.
“They have a feeling that there is struggle ahead of them, that there is a low-wage job without much future and much hope, and when you take away someone’s hope for the future, you really put them at risk for suicide,” Seabury said.
Colleen Carpenter used to work for a statewide suicide prevention agency until it lost its state and federal funding. Now, she is a suicide prevention consultant for organizations and schools like those in East Allen County.
She says sometimes the best way to help a person who might be depressed is to ask them directly whether they are thinking about suicide, but sometimes the stigma of suicide is a barrier to getting people the help they need.
“If I ask you if you have diabetes, am I going to cause diabetes? If I asked you if you were depressed, am I going to cause depression?” Carpenter asked. “We say no to both of those questions, but for some reason, we think by asking about suicide, somehow we’re going to cause it. And we’re not.”
Stigma isn’t the only barrier. Funding is also a big issue throughout Indiana. Carpenter says there are efforts in the state to make it a higher priority, but she sees Indiana lagging behind other states.
“We have an entire infrastructure across the state, an entire agency dedicated to preventing child abuse,” Carpenter said. “Why don’t we have an agency entirely dedicated to suicide prevention, if we lose the same number of people to suicide as we do child abuse each year?”
Despite the challenges of funding suicide prevention programs, school officials in districts like East Allen County continue to provide training and counseling for students and staff. They hope that by providing education on suicide, they can stop the stigma, and give teens the help they need just like they would with any other physical illness.
Later in this series, we’ll look at opioid addiction in teens, juvenile justice, and teen mental health in students transitioning to college. We’ll also learn more about how to provide help for a teen, or anyone, who is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts. You can hear this series Tuesdays in September on 89.1 WBOI on online at wboi.org.
It is important to seek professional help if you or someone you know has suicidal thoughts. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can find more information and resources at The Lutheran Foundation's website, Look Up, which has a 24/7 hotline at 1-800-248-8439.