As most East Valley students return this week from spring break, they also are starting a troubling period that generates a noticeable spike in calls to the suicide prevention teen hotline, experts warn.
Representatives of the Teen Lifeline last week issued a reminder for parents and other adults that the final eight weeks of the school year pose significant emotional challenges for many teens that range from upcoming performance exams to life after graduation to a feeling of isolation that summer recess often brings.
“We know the time leading up to and after spring break can be especially stressful for teens,” said Michelle Moorhead, Teen Lifeline executive director. “Stressors can be anything from midterm exams to a break from friends which can leave teens feeling overwhelmed and alone.”
The challenges can loom so large in the minds of many teens that Teen Hotline volunteers will be bracing for a 10 percent spike in calls from some boys and girls who are troubled at best and depressed and even suicidal at worst.
That spike this year also is occurring at a time when suicide prevention advocates fear that the State House may kill a bill that would require all school personnel who deal with sixth- through 12th-graders get training in recognizing suicidal individuals and how to respond to them.
Against the backdrop of 38 teen suicides since July 2017 in the East Valley – mostly in Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa and Queen Creek – the bill won rare bipartisan support in the Senate earlier this month as it passed with the only two “no” votes cast by Mesa Sen. David Farnsworth and Gilbert Sen. Eddie Farnsworth.
While the bill is before two House committees – education and judiciary – Chandler state Rep. Jeff Weninger said, “I’m confident this will will reach the finish line.”
The Jem Foundation, created by the Gilbert parents of a 15-year-old boy who took his life in 2016, put out calls on social media to supporters, asking them to call lawmakers and urge the bill’s passage.
Meanwhile, Teen Lifeline volunteers expect to be with the lives that suicide prevention training might be able to save.
Established in 1986, Teen Lifeline is accredited through the American Association of Suicidology. Trained, volunteer teen counselors last year answered more than 23,000 calls and 1,400 text messages from troubled kids their age or even younger. More than three quarters of those calls and texts originated in Maricopa County.
Lifeline Clinical Director Nikki Kontz said there are multiple reasons why those volunteers see an increase in calls as teens return to school from spring break.
“When you think of it, there’s a lot going on that’s on their mind. There’s a lot of things happening,” Kontz said.
In their immediate future, April brings performance and achievement testing as well as proms, and the academic and social pressures of those two events alone can seem overwhelming to some teens.
This also is the time when many seniors are getting the verdict on their applications to colleges and universities, and while the waiting can be excruciating for some, the letters and emails they receive can bring devastating news.
“On top of that, you have finals coming up and for some, graduation,” Kontz said.
Regardless of whether they’ve been accepted or rejected, the prospect of graduation itself can lead to feelings of depression as students look at an uncertain future in a new environment and an end to the sense of security they might have found in high school.
And even if graduation is a year or more away, the prospect of summer coming soon is a stressor for many.
“Not every kid thinks summer is wonderful,” Kontz said. “For many, it’s a time when they are separate from friends and supportive adults. For them, school is a safe place.”
Kontz said school can often provide “protective factors – the things that protect all of us from making bad decisions, the idea of a connection to others.”
It’s for this reason that Teen Lifeline exists, providing what Moorhead called a “connection to others, hope for the future, access to services, and basic coping and life skills” that “all help reduce risk and ultimately prevent teen suicide.”
Many East Valley school districts – including Mesa Public Schools, Tempe Union and Chandler among them – have put the Teen Lifeline number on the backs of their ID badges.
That also underscores why some legislators like Ahwatukee Sen. Sean Bowie and Sen. J.D. Mesnard of Chandler have been strongly in support of the suicide prevention training bill.
Its importance was underscored at a recent meeting of the Mesa Public Schools Governing Board when Jennifer Stewart told members about her 14-year-old son Braxton’s suicide not long after he began his freshman year at Red Mountain High School.
Braxton had been a “kind, happy and gifted young man with a bright future,” and shortly after beginning his freshman year at Red Mountain High School, “his grades began to drop, and he quit turning in his assignments several times.”
Stewart lamented the absence of training for school personnel and how during her son’s orientation “there was a lot of talk about schedules, dress codes, which I didn’t see enforced at all, and a multitude of forms to fill out in triplicate regarding home addresses and bus schedules, but not one mention of mental health, not one pamphlet or talk about suicide warning signs, the pressure of transitioning to high school and college prep or how to handle bullying.”
“I don’t need a tutorial on researching my child’s grades if my child is dead,” she said.
Last week, a 13-year-old girl posted a Facebook message relating to the Feb. 1 suicide by a senior at Mountain View High School.
“I feel like Mesa is really struggling,” she wrote. “A girl has recently taken her life and she thought it would affect no one. It affected everyone, people she didn’t even know.”
Tragedies like these are why Teen Lifeline is alerting parents, said Moorhead, explaining that “it takes the entire community to help our most vulnerable teens. It is important to know the things that put your teen at risk as well as the things that will protect them from the risk of suicide.”
Parents asked to follow SAFE program
Teen Lifeline urges urge parents to follow what Executive Director Michelle Moorhead terms their SAFE program – an acronym for four steps parents should take this time of year:
S. “Search the back of your teen’s school ID. If you have a child in middle school or high school, check the back of your student’s school ID to make sure it has the Teen Lifeline phone number. If you don’t see the hotline number listed, contact administrators at your child’s school now and ask to have it added.”
A. “Ask about thoughts of suicide. If you are concerned about your child, it is important to ask them about thoughts of suicide. It is a common misconception that you can give someone the idea of suicide, if you ask about it. Openly asking the question gives your teen permission to talk about their feelings, including the emotions, frustrations or challenges they are going through.”
F. “Form connections. Strong connections to family, friends and community support are a protective factor for teens. To help prevent teen suicide, form a stronger connection with a teen in your life today. For example, send a text to ask how their day is going, plan something fun to do together, eat dinner together or ask about how things are going in their life.”
E. “Encourage positive relationships. Many times, a teen’s friends help them feel supported and cared for. These friendships can come through school, sports teams, clubs, church groups and even social media. ...Think twice before cutting off all contact with friends or social media, which can actually increase risk. Instead opt for allowing some connection to continue but limit the time or duration.”
The hotline number is 602-284-8336 and is answer 24/7 every day. Teens can talk to or text trained teen volunteers at that number from 3-9 p.m. daily.