Tahoe/Truckee locals search for answers after five youth suicides in past three years

Margaret Moran
Margaret Moran / Sierra Sun

TRUCKEE, Calif. — In light of recent student losses and with a mindset of preventing future tragedies, community members from various sectors are coming together to learn what’s available and provide input on ways to better support the emotional well-being of area youth.

Since the start of the 2012-13 school year, three current or former students associated with Tahoe Truckee Unified School District schools have committed suicide — a sophomore, a 2008 graduate and a former student — two of which occurred in January.

“The passing of a student for any reason is a tragedy for the entire community,” said TTUSD Superintendent Rob Leri during an interview at his office last week.

To help identify youth at risk of suicide, a screening program based on Columbia University’s “TeenScreen” called “What’s Up? Wellness Checkups” is being introduced into the district’s three high schools starting, an endeavor officials said has been several years in the making.

“We check our eyes and ears on a regular basis to make sure we’re OK — why not emotional health?” asked Jen Winders, the screening program’s case manager and outreach coordinator.

“What’s Up? Wellness Checkups” will be offered one day a week each at Truckee, North Tahoe and Sierra Continuation high schools. Upon parent and youth consent, students will complete a free 10-minute, confidential, computerized questionnaire, identifying any vision, hearing, dental and substance abuse problems that may exist, along with symptoms of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thinking and behavior.

“It’s kind of like a blood pressure check for social and emotional well-being,” explained Corine Harvey, TTUSD executive director of student services, to school board trustees during their Feb. 6 meeting.

Screening will focus on 10th-graders, but other students can be included in the program by submitting approved consent forms, which were expected to be sent out earlier this week. It’s the district’s goal to gain consent to screen 80 percent or more of all 10th-graders, Harvey said.

‘Mental illness is treatable’

Nationally, 10th-graders have the highest rate of completed suicides, Winders said, and according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15-24-year-olds in the United States.

Those statistics — coupled with the trio of recent losses — were at top of mind for the more than 125 community members, ranging from parents and students to school district staff and local nonprofit representatives, who recently gathered at a pair of public meetings to learn how to cope with suicide loss and discuss how to better support area youth.

“Ninety percent of people who commit suicide have a coexisting mental health issue going on in some form or another — depression being the most common,” said David Love, executive director of Valley Community Counseling Services, at the Feb. 12 community meeting.

During the “What’s Up? Wellness Checkups,” students whose screening answers reveal a potential concern will privately meet with a trained mental health professional to determine if further evaluation is needed. If determined it is, the student’s parents or guardians will be contacted by program staff, who will share the student’s checkup results and discuss with the family potential resources of help.

The health professional will stay on to case-manage the student until he or she has had three sessions with an outside resource to ensure a successful treatment connection, Harvey said.

“Mental illness is treatable, and we want to intervene before it gets worse,” said Winders, who, along with program coordinator Galen Ellis and clinical coordinator Shellee Sepko, is under contract with Nevada County Behavioral Health to oversee the screenings.

All screening results are confidential and will not be stored with academic records, according to the program. Screened students whose answers reveal no red flags will meet with other program staff in private to give them an opportunity to bring up concerns not covered by screening and discuss what to do if a problem arises in the future.

The screening program is a collaborative effort among the Nevada County Behavioral Health Department, the community Suicide Prevention Task Force within Nevada County, Nevada Joint Union High School District’s Student Assistant Program — which started the program the week of Feb. 4 — and TTUSD.

Nevada County Behavioral Health is funding the program, spending $115,000 for six high schools — three in the TTUSD and three in the Nevada Joint Union High School District.

“(Truckee is) a community that’s really hurting right now, and we’re doing a community effort to prevent those tragedies from happening,” Winders said.

Program inception

Development for “What’s Up? Wellness Checkups,” along with two other emotional well-being services in the district, began after past student losses, Leri said. In 2010, a 17-year-old district student committed suicide, with another suicide of an 18-year-old student occurring in March 2011.

“We turned grief into action for our kids,” Harvey told those at the Feb. 12 community meeting.

One of those past actions was starting “Sources of Strength,” a youth suicide prevention program in which trained student mentors from various social groups listen to fellow classmates and help them to access support. The program, which aims to increase help-seeking behaviors and connections between peers and caring adults, is present in all three district high schools, but is stronger at Truckee and Sierra high schools than North Tahoe High, Harvey said at the Feb. 6 school board meeting.

“The whole concept behind ‘Sources of Strength’ is kids model behavior, and they watch out for peers,” she said in a follow-up interview last week. “It’s kind of that ripple effect of making change happen in a school — a school climate, a school culture.”

According to the district, “Sources of Strength” projects have included a student compliment campaign, a hallway exhibit naming “Trusted Adults,” and creating a “Positive Affirmations” campaign, naming the best moments in one’s life. “Sources of Strength” in Truckee High School has also created a series of assemblies, including “Be the Change,” to follow up Challenge Day, an annual assembly that focuses on tolerance.

The Wellness Center

The other initiative is the Wellness Center, present in both Truckee and North Tahoe high schools and open to students Monday through Thursday. Meanwhile, Sierra High has integrated wellness programming that complements existing programs, such as the Sierra Teen Parenting Program and Gateway Mountain Center programming, due to the school’s small student population and limited meeting space, said Kim Bradley, TTUSD wellness coordinator.

“Students can come in, hang out and talk, if they want to, or they can just get some snacks, listen to music,” she explained to the school board on Feb. 6, referring to the two wellness centers. “But they’re building relationships with caring adults, so if something does come up, they know they have someone to talk to and that they can get connected to resources.”

Some of the issues students have brought up with center staff range from a fight with a friend and homework stress to depression and dealing with the loss of a friend, she said.

Wellness programming, including after-school tutoring; speakers in health and physical education classes; wellness workshops such as Zumba and yoga; and a four-part series on reducing school stress have also been offered through the Wellness Center, reaching more than 1,000 district high school students.

“At the core of the wellness program is youth,” Bradley said at the Feb. 12 meeting. “We really don’t want to just take a program, transplant it in the school, and say, ‘Hey, guys come on get bought into out program.’ We really want to say, ‘What do you think? What do you want?’”

When the Wellness Center was piloted at all three TTUSD high schools last spring, there was framework in place, but students were worked with to shape its programming to ensure its effectiveness, Bradley said, with the Wellness Center officially launching this past fall.

In a follow-up interview, Bradley said the Wellness Center program has met individually with 50 students, connecting approximately 20 of them with community resources.

New this year is an alcohol education program for all ninth-graders in the district, funded by the Tahoe Forest Hospital, which is working with Tahoe Truckee Future Without Drug Dependence coalition.

On top of that, district schools have various clubs and sports teams that allow students to connect to their peers and an adult, Leri said.

“We really want to make sure every student has a relationship with a trusted adult,” he said.

Other adults available to district high-schoolers are the equivalent of 3.6 school counselors and 4.6 school psychologists, compared to the average state ratio of one counselor for 2,500 students, Harvey said at the Feb. 12 meeting, a statistic that drew sounds of shock from the audience.

Leri later added that counselors are also present at the elementary level — something that isn’t found everywhere — in part due to Measure A, a flat parcel tax within TTUSD boundaries that generates enrichment funding for the district.

“In light of the recent tragedies that we’ve had, it’s been very fortunate to have these services in our schools,” Harvey said.

The best solution?

Adding additional emotional wellness programs might not be the solution moving forward, said Phebe Bell, program officer for the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation.

“You just saw a pretty impressive list of programs we have in place … so I’m not convinced that it’s an issue of needing more programs,” she told those at the Feb. 12 community meeting. “I feel that ultimately what we need to struggle with a little bit … is the harder work of how do we create cultural shift.”

Questions about possible changes that can be made to better support local youth were posed to the audience, which broke into smaller table groups to discuss options.

“These kids don’t know that some of what they’re feeling, other people are feeling, too,” said Pati Johnson, a parent at one table. “They have no clue that what they are feeling is normal and is OK. They don’t talk. They need to talk.”

Nancy Minges, a guide with Gateway Mountain Center, said youth tend to think they’re supposed to keep their demeanor “positive.”

An idea the table came up with was doing an emotional weather report during the school day, in which students and an adult leading the report say, in one word, how they are feeling that day.

Suggestions for school day changes generated by other tables included modeling how to connect with a trusted adult starting in elementary school and reinforcing it throughout students’ school careers; a mentoring program between older and younger students; more Challenge Days; and using 10 minutes a day in school for relaxation exercises such as breathing techniques, among others.

To the question of changing one thing in the community to decrease the risk of youth suicide, responses included the creation of a teen center outside of school, more after-school options, and internship and service opportunities, among others.

What’s next

A task force made up of the Community Collaborative of Tahoe Truckee, Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation, TTUSD and Young Life reviewed the input given at the two community meetings — on Feb. 7 and Feb. 12 — on Friday, March 1.

“We’re committed now to reviewing all of the materials and looking at ways that, as a community, we can continue or better support the youth in our community,” Leri said.

He said the task force could make its recommendation as early as in two weeks.

“I envision a staged response,” said Harvey, adding that some community suggestions can be implemented quickly, while others would take more time.

Holistically, the recent discussions and public gatherings recognized the power and importance of community in building a support system for area youth, Bell said.

“We are scrambling hard,” Bell said. “There is no one agency in this community whose job it is to handle a situation like this. I think the good news is — as we all know — at all levels of this community, at every spectrum, there are tons of caring people … It comes down to all of us.”

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