The Toughest Conversation

Professionals offer insight into the mental health struggles of Eastside middle-schoolers and how they aim to prevent suicide among students

Each year, school counselors at Odle Middle School in Bellevue — Kat Farkas, A’yana Carroll, and Jean Vrbka — visit every sixth-grade classroom in the school to introduce themselves and the resources they offer. Sixth-graders are instructed to fill out a brief survey to assess emotional and social well-being. For example, one question asks them to mark whether they feel stressed most of the time, sometimes, rarely, or never. The end of the survey has a blank space for students to include anything they want to tell the counselors.

Illustrated by Jorgen Burt

“Responses range from, ‘I like this video game’ to ‘I’m a lesbian’ to ‘I’m feeling so sad every day, and I don’t know what to do,’” Vrbka said.

At the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, about one-third of sixth-graders checked the box saying they feel stressed most of the time. These stressors often manifest in depression, anxiety, or the contemplation of ending one’s life, according to the counselors.

Increased mental health struggles at young ages are not unique to Odle. Preteens and teenagers all over the country are dealing with higher pressure to succeed, decreased face-to-face connections, and undeveloped coping methods. Nationally, suicide rates among adolescent populations have been on the rise. In Washington, suicide is the leading cause of death among ages 10-14, according to the American Association for Suicide Prevention. At Odle Middle School, there were 69 reports of suicide intervention in the first two months of the 2018-19 school year.

Suicide interventions occur when students express suicide ideation, meaning that the student has disclosed they’ve considered killing themselves. They do not necessarily reflect suicide attempts or hospitalizations, but that the conversation has taken place. In some cases, students will be sent to the hospital for an emergency assessment. In other cases, they’ll be referred to behavioral health specialists or connected with other beneficial resources.

“Yes; we have more suicide interventions,” said Deborah Kraft, supervisor of K-12 counseling for Bellevue School District. “But, part of that is not because more kids are thinking about it. It’s because more kids are feeling safer in coming to talk to us about it.”

Because the 2013 state legislation requires all school districts to develop suicide prevention plans, students are being reached out to more regularly and in more ways than ever before. District employees in all levels are working to break down the stigma associated with seeking mental health services and meet students where they are.

Eastside schools in the Bellevue and Lake Washington School Districts have established a partnership with Youth Eastside Services (YES) to make psychiatric professionals available to students. Michelle Brode is a behavioral health support specialist with YES, working in elementary and middle schools in the Lake Washington School District. She responds to suicide risk assessments and provides substance abuse prevention and mental health counseling. With these tools to cope with stress, anxiety, and depression, Brode said students are less likely to actively try to end their lives.

Illustrated by Jorgen Burt

Brode said that in younger populations, there is less likelihood of lethality when expressing suicide ideation. High school-aged students have the highest chances of lethality, because they have far more access to the means of ending their lives. Many elementary and middle-schoolers won’t have access to or know how to use those means. 

“A 5-year-old looks very different from an 18-year-old who is driving him- or herself home from school that day,” Brode added. In many cases, Brode said, suicide ideation in middle-schoolers is a clear indicator of distress — that the student is facing things he or she isn’t equipped to handle. The growing pressures on students to achieve at younger and younger ages
is something she considers a cause of that distress.

She recalled visiting a series of seventh-grade classrooms on the Eastside to open up discussions with students. To get them thinking about mental health, she passed out a notecard to every student in the classroom. On one side, they were to write something positive — something they excel at or enjoy. On the other, they were to write a worry.

“It’s amazing how many seventh graders are worried about their grades, about getting into a good college, getting a good job; stuff that we don’t imagine being in the thought process of 12- and 13-year-olds,” Brode said.

This is especially true at Odle Middle School in Bellevue, Brode said. Half of the school consists of the neighborhood population, and the other half is enrolled in the gifted learning program, which contains highly capable children from throughout the school district. The neighborhood students may be facing difficulties, but the gifted students might feel the pressure to achieve to an intimidating extent. When faced with their own limitations at such a young age, they can shut down or give up.

Matt Gillingham, director of student services for the Lake Washington School District, is focused on helping the students in his district — and all across the Eastside — develop resilience in the face of difficulty. He directly oversees the Lake Washington School District’s suicide prevention efforts and is a contributing member of Eastside Pathways, a collaborative and holistic effort to address youth mental health and well-being with other professionals throughout the area.

Illustrated by: Jorgen Burt

“Our kids are telling us there’s an imbalance with their skill sets to manage a stress level,” Gillingham said. “Anxiety in itself is not necessarily unhealthy, but it becomes unhealthy if they don’t have the skills to manage it in their daily lives. One thing we’re really focused in on — and I know Bellevue and Issaquah (school districts are as well — is implementing social and emotional learning programs throughout their student
experience — K-12.”

By establishing a growth mindset, a way of thinking that looks at struggles as opportunities for growth, students will be able to cope more effectively with the stressors of day-to-day life. Because these kids don’t have effective strategies to deal with difficulties, they imagine ending their life to be a solution. The goal of these learning programs is to provide more effective coping strategies by looking at the student as a whole.

“Kids may not report lower levels of anxiety, but they’ll have the skills to deal with that anxiety or stress,” Gillingham said.

For parents or other adults in a kid’s life, the best thing to do is be there. Carroll said having a supportive adult in his or her life is huge for a struggling student.

“I know it’s sometimes hard as a parent, but just really listen to whatever it is that your child has going on,” Carroll said. “We talk about modeling, so if you’re stressed out or have things going on, have a conversation with your child about how you handle that. Try not to jump to any conclusion or lecture; just be present and listen.”

Other advice includes limiting social media, because evidence that it contributes to anxiety and depression in teens is indisputable; enforcing a no-screen policy at night to ensure your child is getting adequate sleep; allowing for failure and giving them the support to come back from those failures; building time for them to be bored, giving their brain a rest and letting them reflect; and educating yourself on mental health best practices and resources in your area. These things could potentially make a big difference in your student’s time of need.

But even though a student may be facing depression or anxiety, he or she should have the resources at school to help them get through it. Farkas recalled counseling a student who was in seventh grade a few years ago who expressed some significant suicide ideation. This student was sent to the hospital, and a care plan was developed with parents and therapists.

“Then, the next year as an eighth-
grader, she was bringing students (to the counseling office) that she was concerned about and telling them, ‘Hey, you can get help. This isn’t a permanent thing. I went through it, and I’m feeling better,’” Farkas said. “It helps to have students who have seen the other side of that doom and gloom and be better for it — to be the example for their friends.”


Resources

CRISIS TEXT LINE: 741-741

24-HOUR CRISIS LINE: 1-866-4CRISIS (1-866-427-4747)

TEEN LINK: 1-866-TEENLINK (1-866-833-6546)

SUICIDE PREVENTION LIFELINE: 1-866-273-TALK (1-866-273-8255)

YOUTH EASTSIDE SERVICES: 425-747-4937

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