A program called One Gilbert hopes to unite everyone in town behind an ambitious but much-needed goal: eliminating the teen suicide epidemic.
The new effort, launched by education consultant Katey McPherson and Gilbert Mayor Jenn Daniels, will target teen alienation from adults and attempt to ensure teens have at least one trusted adult who can guide them through everyday life and emotional distress.
McPherson – a former assistant junior high school principal, a national and international lecturer and a suicide prevention advocate – will help create a survey to be administered to all students in grades six through 12 attending Gilbert, Higley or Chandler schools within town boundaries.
McPherson, joined by East Valley mothers who lost children to suicide and a bipartisan group of East Valley legislators, succeeded in shining a spotlight on the teen suicide problem.
Since July 2017, 38 teens in Gilbert, Chandler, Queen Creek and Mesa took their lives. Among the most recent was a 17-year-old Gilbert boy, who attended Desert Ridge High School, took his life within days after a friend at Skyline High in Mesa took her life.
The group of suicide-prevention advocates has convinced virtually everyone the issue lingered in the shadows too long due in part to the social stigma surrounding suicide.
Among their victories passage of the law requiring training of all school personnel dealing with grades six through 12 to recognize suicidal warning signs and knowing how to respond.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey addressed a severe lack of school counselors by putting money in the state budget for school districts to funding more school mental health professionals.
But One Gilbert is more of a preventative approach uniquely targeting students in one town with a community-wide response uniting school and town officials, residents, Gilbert police and teens - addressing the root causes of teen suicide.
“I think we are in a really good spot. I have the majority of the town saying, ‘I’m behind this,’’’ McPherson said, noting that includes Daniels.
McPherson said the town is planning to hire her as a consultant to develop the survey and coordinate the effort.
“We’ve been very reactive and we have made tremendous progress,’’ McPherson said. “Imagine what we can do if everyone in the town is focused on prevention.’’
Daniels said the former East Valley Behavioral Health Committee is now the One Gilbert Committee and that several other community groups have joined the effort, realizing that mental health is a human issue and not a political issue.
“Our youth has to be intimately involved in this conversation. This is them,’’ Daniels said. “This is a human thing. The rampant anxiety and depression, these are the challenges for this generation of youth.’’
If nothing is done, “we will lose a generation from the anxiety are youth are experiencing. It is debilitating for them,’’ Daniels said, putting them on the wrong track to hopelessness and the possibility of suicide.
Following a similar one used in Queen Creek earlier this year, the survey would ask teens about issues, including stressors in their lives, substance abuse and their relationships with peers and adults – like teachers and parents.
“We’re going to survey all of students in grades six through 12 about how they say they are feeling from a mental health standpoint,’’ McPherson said.
The Queen Creek survey – administered by Authentic Connections, a company headed by Arizona State University psychology professor Suniya Luthar – came to some troubling conclusions.
It will likely serve as model for the Gilbert effort.
Chief among them was a sense of isolation and alienation, with 39 percent of teens reporting they do not have a trusted adult at school to confide in.
“I would never make a blanket statement that Queen Creek students are alienated from their parents and teachers,’’ Luthar said.
But she said there was a subgroup of students who felt that way.
Luthar’s report recommended a focus on attacking the alienation of teens.
The report found almost 75 percent of girls and 65 percent of boys said, “there is at least one trusted adult I can turn to.’’
But it also means 25 percent of girls and 35 percent of boys said they do not have at least one trusted adult in which to share their feelings at school.
Luthar said the statistic about students having no adults to confide in at school can be misleading because some students don’t believe it’s necessary.
She said many students have someone else in their lives they can talk to about their feelings outside of school, such as a parent or a sibling.
More than 10 percent of Queen Creek students were found to be “anxious/depressed” or “withdrawn/depressed.”
Bullying, expectations created by social media and the lack of deep emotional relationships with parents and teachers were all cited as contributing factors.
The report recommends parents develop an emotional connection with children at an early age and watch for signs of emotional withdrawal, among other things.
The Queen Creek survey also found a mixture of other interesting, if not reassuring results.
It found a lower rate of alcohol use among the 1,686 Queen Creek High School students surveyed; 18.6 percent compared to the 24.4 percent national average.
Cigarette smoking also was lower than the national average, at 4 percent compared to 5.9 percent.
But the magnitude of the vaping epidemic among young people was obvious, with 20 percent saying they vape nicotine compared to the 18.5 percent national average.
Another 16.4 percent reported they vape marijuana, compared to the 7.25 percent national average.
“There is a huge divide between what parents think they need and what the kids are saying’’ in the Queen Creek survey, McPherson said.
She said that every child needs to have a trusted adult to help them through growing up and maturing, whether that person is a parent or a teacher or a coach – and that a sense of alienation can contribute to suicide.
“We want to capture them on the runway of distress,’’ she said, before a teen makes a bad decision by deciding to end their own life. “These kids have undeveloped brains and they have very low coping skills.’’
She said one priority for One Gilbert will be helping teens to develop better-coping skills to deal with their problems in a rational way.
That will address such efforts in helping them realize that a breakup with a boyfriend or a girlfriend isn’t as bad as it might seem or that a bad grade might be a temporary obstacle.
Other programming will be based on the survey’s results.
An obvious high-priority for parents is to closely monitor social media, which can be a source of bullying and victimization, McPherson said.
McPherson’s unofficial count of teen suicides in the East Valley shows that while most who took their lives were boys, the number of girls has been increasing recently.
“Every one of these kids goes on twitter and Snapchat and tells the world what they are going to do,’’ she said.