Open communication

What do you say to a young child who might be at risk for suicide?

PHOTO: Getty Images

Talking about suicide with young children can feel scary or inappropriate. But Jenna Glover, a child psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado, said broaching the subject can save lives.

“We have this fear that if we ask about it we’ll plant a seed,” Glover said. “There is no research to support that, and in fact, there is research that when we ask kids about their suicidal thoughts, they see a decrease in those thoughts.”

The death by suicide of a 9-year-old Denver boy in the first week of school has drawn awareness to the sad fact that young children try to and sometimes manage to take their own lives. Glover said it’s still very rare for children younger than 10 to attempt suicide, but it seems to be increasing.

In young children, restricting access to lethal means, like firearms, sharp objects, and prescription medication, greatly reduces the chances of attempted or actual suicide, Glover said. Lock boxes for pills, scissors, and knives can be bought at drugstores.

It’s also important for parents and schools to know that children who bully – and not just those who are bullied – have an increased risk of harming themselves.

“We’re quick to ask our kids, ‘Are you being bullied?’ But it’s just as important to ask our kids, ‘Are you bullying anyone?’” Glover said. The common denominators are hopelessness, a sense of social isolation, difficulty making or keeping friends, and troubles at school or at home.

Glover said it’s important for parents to keep lines of communication open and help kids deal with big emotions. Adults should ask kids not just how their day was, but also what hard things happened at school and how the child is feeling about them and coping. And parents should not be afraid of asking children if they’re thinking about harming themselves.

Here’s how to ask, according to Glover: Have you ever wished you could go to sleep and not wake up? If the answer is yes, follow up with, Have you ever thought about hurting yourself? If the answer is yes again, ask your child if they’ve thought about how and when they would do this, Glover said.

If a child has a specific plan, it’s best to go to the emergency department, Glover said. If the child doesn’t have a plan, arrange for a mental health evaluation as soon as possible and keep checking in with your child in the meantime to make sure they haven’t started to form a plan.

“If you ask your kids those questions, you’re going to be much more likely to be able to keep them safe,” Glover said.


RESOURCES

Colorado Crisis Line: 1-844-493-8255, coloradocrisisservices.org. You can chat online or text TALK to 38255.

Crisis Text Line: crisistextline.org. Text 741741 from anywhere in the nation to reach a counselor.

Mental Health First Aid Colorado: mhfaco.org. Classes teach participants the signs and symptoms of mental health challenges or crisis, what to do in an emergency, and where to turn for help.

Mental Health Colorado: https://www.mentalhealthcolorado.org/ This statewide advocacy organization offers a free mental health toolkit for schools.

Suicide Prevention Coalition of Colorado: www.suicidepreventioncolorado.org. The coalition works to reduce suicide through education and advocacy.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: afsp.org. The foundation pays for research, raises awareness, and provides support to those affected by suicide.

Colorado Department of Education: Bullying Prevention: cde.state.co.us/mtss/bullying. Find current research, best practices, and grant programs.

Unmet needs

A social worker in every grade? Perhaps for 10 Colorado elementary schools

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Fifth-graders practice mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Educators, parents, and social workers told of students struggling with depression, younger and younger children attempting suicide, and youths ending up in prison. A bill approved Thursday by a Colorado House committee would pay for a three-year trial to provide social and emotional help for elementary students in the hopes of addressing some of these challenges.

If approved by the full legislature and signed into law, the measure would create a three-year pilot program at 10 high-needs schools. It is estimated to cost about $5 million a year. House Bill 1017 would place social workers, counselors or psychologists in every elementary grade at the test schools starting next year.

In an impassioned presentation, bill sponsor state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said schools need more social workers “to stop our children from dying by suicide, from ending up incarcerated, from being failed by our system.”

Suicide is a leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, and advocates of the bill said schools are often ill-equipped to deal with children suffering from trauma, bullying and behavioral challenges.

The bill was scaled back from an original version that would have cost $16 million a year. Michaelson Jenet said the nearly $5 million annual cost would be funded in part by $2.5 million from the state’s marijuana cash fund, with the rest from private foundations.

The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students, and one for every 50 students at high-needs schools.

Colorado schools don’t come close to those numbers.

About one-third of the state’s 178 school districts employed social workers during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which data was available from the Colorado Department of Education. Those districts represented about 89 percent of that year’s 905,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.

The nearly 590 social workers employed worked out to less than one full-time employee per 1,000 students.

Englewood’s Sheridan School District had three social workers for 1,511 students, while Yuma County had 1½ social workers for 807 students.

The two largest districts, Denver and Jefferson County, employed more than one-third of school social workers that year, with more than one social worker for every 1,000 students. Denver voters approved a 2016 tax to help pay for more social workers.

But many districts have no social workers. And most school social workers are stretched thin.

Jessie Caggiano is a social worker who serves more than 3,000 students at four high schools in Weld County.

“I’m not able to meet with students effectively on a one-on-one basis, because I’m trying to implement other services schoolwide,” she said. “I’m only at each of my schools one day a week, so I’m not able to meet their needs by any means.”

Darlene Sampson, president of the Colorado chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers, recalled working at a Denver school when a student was killed in the cafeteria.

“Many kids are carrying their trauma in their backpacks into the school,” Sampson said.

And Cam Short-Camilli, representing the Colorado School Social Work Association, said students are facing increased emotional problems at most schools. The increase in youth suicide and suicide attempts is especially difficult, she said. One Denver incident last fall attracted national attention.

“Every school district, every student is impacted, that’s rural, urban, suburban schools,” Short-Camilli said. “In the past five years, I’ve been at elementary schools, and it’s been extremely shocking. Kids at those schools, there’s an immense ripple effect.”

But state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican, questioned whether the pilot program would be possible to replicate because of the high number of professionals needed.

“I’m sitting here feeling like the Grinch,” Wilson said. “I cannot bring myself to put together an unrealistic pilot. Will it really work in the real world?”

State Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, also expressed concerns, but voted for the bill.

“I’m concerned how we’re going to fund it,” she sad. “The suicide rate is off the chart and our kids need so much help. I don’t think we can wait. I have a lot of phone calls and emails about this bill, people who really need the help.”

HB-1017 next goes to the Appropriations Committee before being considered by the full House, then the Senate. It is one of several measures aimed at offering help for students and their families beyond academics at public schools.

First Person

We’ve watched as schools have responded to the Parkland shooting with more police. What we actually need: counselors and teachers of color

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Students from the Grace Dodge campus in the Bronx walked out of class on March 14 to call for more investment in mental health support and counselors.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a year ago today, in which 17 students and staff members were killed, put gun violence front and center in the national conversation. It’s been a year since this horrific tragedy, and we must continue to put the focus on ways to truly make schools safer.

What happened in the aftermath of Parkland was incredible. Students, some of them our age, who had been silent became active, and those who have been speaking about gun violence for years got even louder. Marjory Stoneman Douglas students used their time in the spotlight to garner worldwide media attention, and youth across the country organized walkouts, including in New York.

We have so much love and respect for what the Parkland students did in the midst of tragedy. They helped, as models and through their actions, build the foundation for future generations fighting for social justice. But while their success is undeniable, we must also acknowledge the countless students of color who have advocated for the end of gun violence for years but have never attracted the same attention and who sometimes see school safety through a different lens.

These students, in organizations like LIFE Camp in Queens, and New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, have been on the ground in black and brown communities long before the Parkland tragedy. The two of us — one a student of color, Alliyah, who has experienced some of the effects of gun violence, and one of us, Abe, who is white and has mostly escaped such experiences — stand together to elevate these voices.

The voices of students of color are too often ignored, forgotten, or silenced. Many communities of color know the consequences of gun violence all too well, and students there have had to reckon with the threat of gun violence too early in young lives. They go to schools that are already over-policed and wait in long lines every morning to go through metal detectors that do not make them feel safe. Yet these students’ stories have often been left out of the national debates about gun violence; that must change.

In the Bronx, where Alliyah went to middle school, the threat of gun violence was often present. In middle school, there were frequent loudspeaker announcements telling students that a peer had been injured or killed at the hands of a gun. Each notice left families and friends reeling, but their suffering didn’t attract much media attention. And the response to school shootings has often been to insist on more police, more security measures in and around schools that often don’t make students of color feel safer.

They can be hassled by police to and from school and wait in those long metal-detector lines to enter school. Students can be subject to random searches by the New York Police Department at school, as described by a recent student at a Black Lives Matter at School rally. Black students are more likely than whites to receive harsher punishments for the same categories of misbehavior in school. Taken together, over-policing in and around schools can lower test scores and become a reason to avoid school for some students of color, as a new study has found.

That’s why we believe the answer to school violence isn’t more police, more metal detectors, or teachers carrying guns. We were heartened to see New York state legislators supporting a bill to prevent teachers from carrying guns in schools. This is a start. But too many other states are responding to the tragedy at Parkland by arming teachers, which doesn’t make students of color feel more secure. It is extremely important that all students, no matter their race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation, feel protected in schools. But this can only happen if students of color have a voice in how we respond to gun violence.

So what do students of color need? More adults of color whom students can turn to when they have problems; more counselors who can talk to us about issues we’re having before violence happens and when something traumatic does take place. Sometimes it’s a teacher’s positivity that creates a nurturing school environment. Alliyah, for example, attends a public high school where most of the students and teachers are white. But there are two black female teachers, and they constantly cheer her and each other on with positive comments, complimenting each other on how great natural hair looks and how proud they are of each other. This positive energy should be present for every student of color in every school.

Most of all, students of color don’t want to be viewed with constant suspicion and fear, becoming the targets of more — or more aggressive — policing in and out of school. We talk a lot about physical safety in schools but not enough about psychological, emotional, and cultural safety.

Students of color need to be able to walk into school every day knowing that they will be secure. This means that teachers should not be armed, that students should not be walking through metal detectors, that more teachers should look like their students of color, and that administrators have adequate funding for more school counselors.

Fourteen students died a year ago in Parkland. But since then 1,200 more children have lost their lives to gun violence. We must continue this fight to get that number to zero. Lives are literally on the line.

Alliyah Logan is a student in the Teen Activist Project at the New York Civil Liberties Union and Youth Over Guns. Abe Rothstein is a student in the Teen Activist Project at the New York Civil Liberties Union.