As Tempe Union and other area school districts take more action to address teen suicides and the deeper problems that lead to them, a quartet of mothers isn’t relying on teachers and administrators to do all the work.
They’re planning to distribute door hangers throughout Ahwatukee and the East Valley next month that provide important suicide-prevention information — and they’re hoping other people will help circulate them.
“We want to continue to spread the awareness for the signs of suicide and how easy it is to get help if you know of somebody that’s in trouble,” said Karianna Ritenour-Blanchard. “We decided that we would do a door hanger campaign, kind of like what the fire departments do it for drownings.”
Ritenour-Blanchard, of Chandler, — together with Suzanne Whitaker of Ahwatukee, Eduarda Shroder of Tempe and Mountain Pointe High teacher Lorie Warnock — form the nucleus of Parents for Suicide Prevention and are starting their door-hanger campaign next month, which is Suicide Prevention Month.
For Warnock, the problem of teen suicide is painfully personal: Her son Mitchell took his life at age 18 during his senior year at Corona del Sol High School.
Ahwatukee state Sen. Sean Bowie, who pushed through mandatory suicide prevention training for all school personnel, named his bill after Mitchell.
The door hangers include warning signs of suicidal tendencies, phone numbers to call for help and a basic reminder for kids who feel there’s no way out: “Please reach out…You are not alone.”
People who want to help circulate the door hangers can email at kjoyBlanchard@gmail.com.
“Even if you have only 10 houses, even five houses,” Ritenour-Blanchard said, adding “we don’t want anyone to feel overwhelmed.”
“Or even if you want just one and you want to hang it on your door, that’s fine,” she added.
The campaign is forming as Tempe Union High School District took more steps in addressing teen suicide by unveiling its first “Mindfulness Room” this week.
The room is in Corona del Sol, from which three students have taken their lives in the last four years. The rest of Tempe Union’s campuses will have one before the end of the semester.
Mindfulness rooms, which have been opened in other districts — notably Gilbert Public Schools and Chandler Unified — in recent months, give stressed students an oasis to retreat during the day and participate in specially designed exercises led by trained staff.
Tempe Union spokeswoman Jen Liewer said that through a partnership with the Governor’s Office on Youth, Faith and Families and a High School Health and Wellness Grant, select staff at Corona and all other Tempe Union high schools have been trained to oversee the use of the rooms and lead the mindfulness practices.
The grant also funs drug and alcohol prevention at all seven Tempe Union high schools.
Liewer cited the connection between substance abuse and social-emotional wellness and said “offering mindfulness practices on a high school campus supports the efforts of the grant to prevent drug and alcohol use by students.”
Corona’s mindfulness room also received funding from the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Tempe Union over the past year has been at the forefront in the region in trying to stem the epidemic of teen suicides, which have taken 35 lives of young people between 10 and 19 in Queen Creek, Chandler, Mesa and Gilbert since July 2017; six others died in adjacent communities.
The district trained all its employees in recognizing suicidal tendencies and how to respond last year, not waiting for the Legislature to pass the mandatory training bill, which doesn’t go into effect until 2020-21.
Indeed, the four women at the heart of the door-hanger campaign praised Tempe Union Superintendent Kevin Mendivil for his leadership in addressing the worsening mental-emotional health crisis that confronts young people across the country today.
But they believe suicide prevention is not just the schools’ responsibility.
Hence, they’re also organizing workshops for parents, one involving an expert on nonsuicidal self-injury and teenage brain and one that Ritenour-Blanchard hopes will involve teenagers telling moms, dads and other concerned adults what teens face today.
“In September and in March,” she explained, “we’re going to have a panel of teens and the goal is to get teens represented from each of our seven campuses and get them and a couple of alumni as well to really tell us parents what helps, what doesn’t help.”
Teens and Tempe Union alumni who are interested in participating should email Ritenour-Blanchard.
That session is slated for Sept. 16 at Marcos de Niza High School. Ritenour-Blanchard is seeking students from each of Tempe Union’s campuses to volunteer for the panel or have community members recommend a teen who is prepared to speak candidly.
“I want to know what it’s like for students to be in high school right now in Tempe Union High School District and what that feels like and what that looks like and give them a voice for the evening. And also for parents to hear, ‘this is real or this isn’t real or this is perceived’ — those kinds of conversations.
“I want them to tell parents what the issues are and how we can help.”
The four women organized Parents for Suicide Prevention when Bowie in the 2018 legislative session first introduced the suicide-prevention training bill.
It failed that session but overwhelmingly passed this year, partly as a result of the help Bowie got from Republican Sen. J.D. Mesnard and Republican Rep. Jeff Weninger, both of Chandler.
But after the bill was passed, they saw their work as only just beginning.
“You know, we got the legislation passed last year and we wanted to continue to spread the awareness of the signs of suicide and how easy it is to get help if you know of somebody that’s in trouble,” said Ritenour-Blanchard.
Partly their zeal is born out of the haphazard way schools and districts had approached the problem of teen suicide and the escalating cases of depression, anxiety and stress among today’s teens.
Even within Tempe Union just a few years ago, they said, every high school had a different protocol for dealing with troubled teens — and in some cases teachers and staff felt they couldn’t do anything because they had no directives from central administration, the four moms said.
Warnock has spoken about her own son’s experiences in public gatherings and before legislators, as have other mothers and fathers of teens who have taken their lives.
“The school district is coming a long way and I will give them props for that, Ritenour-Blanchard said.
“You have this assumption as parents in the district that every school is operating basically the same.
“So, when we started to realize that what the district office’s impression of what was happening at the campuses was not what the campuses were experiencing, we decided to use our parental volunteer voices and say, ‘You know, you got a lot of disconnects here that need to be addressed and you guys have the ability to rework some things.’”
One big target involves the gross disparity in the number of mental health counselors and students. Lack of enough counselors is a statewide problem that puts Arizona at the bottom of the list nationwide in the counselor-student ratio at about 900-1. The Legislature made $20 million available to districts to hire either counselors or police, but the Arizona Board of Education has held up distributing the money,.
Though Tempe Union and most other districts say their counselor-student ratio is half that, they also are attempting to further increase the ranks of counselors who address students’ emotional and mental well-being rather than their post-graduation plans.
“The majority of our counselors are academic counselors,” Ritenour-Blanchard said, “which means for the kids in crisis, it may not have been the first line of defense.”