By Madeline Coats
WNPA Olympia News Bureau
A bipartisan group of 22 representatives is working to improve crisis planning in Washington schools to prevent youth suicides.
“I know for a fact I am not the only one that considers suicide every single day,” said Maverick Mendoza from Issaquah High School. The 17-year-old has suffered from major depressive disorder and severe anxiety for multiple years. His most-recent suicide attempt was two weeks ago.
House Bill 1221 aims to implement a two-year program for mental health promotion and suicide prevention in schools. The bill requires the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to select up to 12 high schools east of the Cascade mountains to participate in the pilot program.
The Washington State Institute for Public Policy would report to the governor, the legislature and the state schools superintendent with an evaluation of the program by January of 2023 to compare those outcomes with information obtained from high schools west of the Cascades.
Forefront Suicide Prevention, a social impact center at the University of Washington School of Social Work, is taking sustainable action toward preventing suicide. According to the bill, Forefront must work with the selected schools to provide best practices related to suicide prevention.
Dr. Jennifer Stuber, director of Forefront suicide prevention, lost her husband to suicide in 2011.
“I think about our snow day today and the fact that we were all notified in the school about what to do immediately – it’s all systemized,” Stuber said. But, “We have virtually no investment in youth suicide in the state.”
HB 1221 places emphasis on the need for school-based approaches to overcome the urgent health problem of youth suicide. Mental health issues are one of the strongest predictors among adolescents for engaging in self-harm and suicidal behavior, the bill states.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate among 10- to 17-year-olds increased by 70 percent between 2006 and 2016. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for youths ages 10 to 19, as referenced by the centers.
“We have an epidemic in our state,” said the primary sponsor of the bill, Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines. “We are losing two to three young adults every week to suicide.”
According to the bill, one in five adolescents who are attending school have a diagnosable mental health disorder and only half actually seek help from professional services. Symptoms of an underlying mental health disorder include feelings of depression, anxiety, hopelessness and distress.
“Our high school specifically has about 2,400 students. If you divide that by only five counselors, that’s nearly 500 students per counselor,” Mendoza said. “I highly doubt that my own counselor would remember the name associated with my face.”