Teen suicide doesn’t end with the school year. Now JoCo schools offer summertime therapy

It was the middle of summer vacation, July 2015, when 16-year-old Sara Prideaux took her own life.

Now, in summer 2018, a growing number of tragedies like hers have spurred area school districts, working with mental health agencies, to help troubled students — not just during the school year but year-round.

"I was elated to hear that schools are now taking a more proactive approach to tell our kids, 'We hear you, we are listening. We've got your back,'" said Sara's mother, Allie Doss.

If these new year-round efforts were around three years ago, they may have saved the lives of a lot of teens, Doss says, perhaps even her daughter, who attended Shawnee Mission South.

"Maybe someone could have seen something with Sara that I did not see," Doss said. "Or maybe she would have been empowered to go to someone on her own, realizing that she didn't have to deal with things on her own."

Just because summer is in full swing and classes have halted doesn't mean students are safe from some of the same life-threatening stresses many of them faced during the school year, said Tim DeWeese, executive director of Johnson County Mental Health.

So school districts, with Shawnee Mission and Olathe as leaders, have started partnering with mental health groups during the summer to make sure students and parents have a place to go for help. At the same time, before classes resume in the fall, they are training teachers and staff to spot signs that a student may be at risk of suicide.

Tim DeWeese, executive director of Johnson County Mental Health, wants the community to fight teen suicide year-round. Johnson County Mental Health

"There is more collaboration than there ever has been," DeWeese said. "Historically there has been a turf war" between schools and mental health groups, he said. "But with this recent epidemic of suicides and threats of suicide that we are seeing and the stress that young people are under, what we were doing in the past just doesn't work anymore."

The Olathe School District partners with Friends University at Prairie Learning Center, 10975 Lone Elm Road, to provide free counseling sessions for students and their parents during the summer.

Shawnee Mission schools opened a Health Partnership Clinic two years ago at Merriam Park Elementary, 6100 Mastin St. in Merriam, for all district students. It provides physical and dental health services and accepts insurance or, for the uninsured, charges fees on a sliding scale. But this summer, the clinic is promoting another component: mental health services.

And DeWeese said his agency is hosting teacher training sessions over the summer and has met with the county's six district superintendents to talk about how social and mental health workers can help schools do a better job of reaching troubled and stressed-out students, maybe even save lives.

In Missouri, Blue Springs School District teachers, counselors and administrators at all three high schools plus the district alternative school this summer completed training through the Truman Medical Centers to help students cope with trauma. Earlier this year, the district paid a nearly $200,000 settlement to the family of a teen who committed suicide after he was repeatedly bullied in school.

In Lee's Summit, where last fall two students killed themselves within days of each other, teachers, administrators and staff this summer attended a half-day of training about suicide prevention with a nationally recognized psychologist and counselor. Follow-up sessions are scheduled.

A new Missouri law requires all schools in the state to have strategies written by this month to prevent suicides and to root out cyberbullies. In 2016, 73 Missouri teenagers ages 10 to 19 killed themselves — the most on record, according to a Star analysis of state data earlier this year.

In 2016, Kansas joined other states that had adopted the Jason Flatt Act, named for a Tennessee teen who had committed suicide. It requires schools to train teachers and staff every year to spot warning signs.

"As a community, we have a responsibility to look at what more we can do," DeWeese said. "Summer is the perfect time to educate teachers. It is also a time not to lose sight. Students are not necessarily less stressed just because it's summer. And last year there were a few suicides during the summer."

Dr. Steve Arkin, a neurologist with St. Luke's Medical Center, said "rates of teen suicide actually increase during the summer months, the reason being that there is a sense of isolation. You see, they don't have their peers."

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After their son’s lifelong battle with depression culminated in tragedy in 2015, Steve and Karen Arkin have sought to raise public awareness about depression and suicide. ALLISON LONG along@kcstar.com

Arkin's 20-year-old son, Jason, a Blue Valley Northwest graduate and an engineering student at Northwestern University, killed himself in 2015 five days before his 21st birthday.

Providing summer counseling, Arkin said, "gives students an opportunity to talk to someone trained to listen."

Such programs, Arkin said, are a sign that communities are responding differently to suicide these days. When Robin Williams killed himself in August 2014, the nation saw a 10 percent uptick in suicide deaths, Arkin said.

After last month's deaths of fashion icon Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, "instead, people are going for support."

Teen suicide is an escalating national problem. It has risen to be the third-leading cause of death for children ages 5 to 14 and is the second-leading cause of death for ages 15 to 24.

DeWeese said he was compelled to make teen suicide his mantle. "Seeing the numbers go up is what was keeping me up at night," he said.

In the first six months of 2018, teen suicides in Johnson County were nearly twice the number for the entire 12 months of last year, DeWeese said. Last year, through November 2017, eight Johnson County teens under 19 took their lives — two more than in 2016. But those are only the deaths that were made public through news reports or social media. Official state numbers for 2017, broken down by county, are not available until September.

Compounding what DeWeese finds disturbing is that "we are seeing young people using more lethal means," with asphyxiation by hanging and guns being at the top, he said. Attempting suicide with a gun is fatal 80 percent of the time. It's one reason the Johnson County Mental Health Center, Grandparents Against Gun Violence and Johnson County Suicide Prevention Coalition began offering free gun locks to anyone in the community.

"We are the most technology-developed nation in the world, but we have some of the most disconnected and lonely kids, more than we have ever had before," DeWeese said.

So it is increasingly more important that mental health professionals, schools, counselors and families stay connected with troubled teens, says Dr. Tish Taylor, a clinical psychologist who works mostly with children in Johnson County.

"With adolescents, you need everybody's eyes on year-round," Taylor said. "With so much in regard to technology and social media, things can happen very quickly." Taylor said she has noticed more school districts collaborating with community groups and paying even closer attention to students' mental health issues.

After their children's suicides, Doss and the Arkins joined to found the suicide-prevention organization Speak Up and its "You Be You" campaign, led by students to reach teens year-round, in and out of school, throughout the Kansas City area.

"It is all about being proactive," Arkin said. "If we don't support our kids, we will continue to lose them. It will take a community. People grieve the loss as a community, so we now have to attack the problem as a community."

To get help

The Johnson County Suicide Prevention Coalition meets from 3 to 4:30 p.m. on the fourth Thursday of every month at the Johnson County Mental Health Center, 1125 W. Spruce St. in Olathe. To learn more about the coalition, contact Prevention Service at 913-715-7880.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-82.