Participants in a program called One Gilbert hope to unite the town’s residents behind an ambitious and much-needed goal: eliminating teen suicide. The effort, launched in October 2019 by education consultant Katey McPherson and Gilbert Mayor Jenn Daniels, will attempt to ensure teens have at least one trusted adult who can guide them through everyday life and emotional distress.
An increase in connectedness between teens and adults has been proven to be effective in diffusing teenagers’ thoughts of self-harm.
A Valley mother of a teen who died by suicide shared her story at a recent One Gilbert team meeting. She reflected upon what she considers to be key contributors to the heartbreaking action of her son and other teens taking their lives.
Warning signs a teen could be considering suicide include:
• Extreme mood changes or irritability.
• Feeling depressed, sad or hopeless for more than two weeks.
• Acting out or drastic changes in usual behavior.
• Abnormal sleep patterns.
• Changes in eating habits.
• Withdrawing from some aspects of social life.
The mother also believes peer pressure, social media, cell phone overuse and annual wellness checks that do not include depression screening contributed to her child’s death. Now, as an advocate for suicide prevention, the mother said, “As a parent, I was too close and didn’t know or recognize the warning signs.”
She emphasized the importance of every child’s need 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.
One Gilbert is interested in increasing protective factors that contribute to a teen’s resiliency and reduce the risk of suicide.
These protective factors include:
• Family and community support.
• Connection to or participation in school activities.
• Hope for the future.
• Basic life skills, including coping, problem solving and conflict resolution.
• Access to effective care for mental, physical and substance use concerns.
• Cultural and religious beliefs that discourage suicide.
According to a report from the Arizona Department of Health Services, 50 Arizona children between the ages 10-17 died by suicide in 2017. This is nearly 20% higher than the national rate.
In May 2019 the Mitch Warnock Act, sponsored by Sen. Sean Bowie (D-Tempe), passed through the Arizona legislature unanimously and was signed into law by Governor Doug Ducey.
This safety net law was named after Mitch Warnock, a student at Corona Del Sol High School in Tempe, who died by suicide at age 18. His parents advocated for the legislation.
The law requires all school staff who come in contact with students in grades six through 12 to be trained to look for the warning signs of suicide — indications that a parent might not recognize. Additionally at the One Gilbert meeting, Morgan Phillips from Teen Lifeline spoke about the Arizona-based nonprofit that provides a safe, confidential peer-to-peer hotline for teens and other suicide prevention services for teens, parents, and educators.
Teens who are considering suicide, struggling to feel hope in their lives, or who simply need someone to talk to, are invited to call Teen Lifeline 24/7/365 at (602) 248-TEEN (8336).
Teen Lifeline received more than 25,000 calls in 2019. From 3-9 p.m. daily, the hotline is answered by trained volunteer peer counselors ages 15-19, who are supervised by master-level clinicians. Trained counselors are available at all other times. Teen Lifeline is accredited by the American Association of Suicidology (AAS).
Teen Lifeline started after a 1985 movie, “Surviving” starring Molly Ringwald, aired on prime-time network television. As a result of the suicide portrayed in the movie, mental health agencies began to look at the problem of teen suicide. At the time, the teen suicide rate in Arizona was nearly double the national average.
Community members can help prevent teen suicide by volunteering for community-based committees, such as One Gilbert, or attending a teen mental health first aid training session. Find information about mental health first aid at AZYP.org.
Parents are also encouraged to check the back of their teen’s school ID to see if the Teen Lifeline hotline number is listed. If not, ask your school to participate in the free School ID Initiative by Teen Lifeline. Learn more at TeenLifeline.org.
Honora Norton, a Gilbert resident and a citizen volunteer of One Gilbert Program Team. She is Public Relations Chair for Rotary Club of Scottsdale, former Catholic Charities Community Services Executive Board of Directors Chair and active in various valley community non-profit and faith-based organizations.