With more young adults dying from suicide than from cancer, the Pleasanton school district is paying attention to the problem and is encouraging others to as well.
Educators are aware of the numbers of students considered "5150s," a California police code meaning a person may be a danger to themselves or others. At Village High, for example, a student is immediately referred to a counselor if he or she says or writes something about not wanting to live, according to Principal Greg Giglio. He said sometimes, a student might just be blowing off steam.
"We look to have a deeper conversation with the student as to why they are saying what they are saying, what exactly do they mean by the statement," Giglio said. "Sometimes the student just says it was a figure of speech or that they were frustrated so they said it -- we try to determine if that is true or if they are just covering up. If the student starts to be more specific about how they would hurt themselves or when they would hurt themselves then we look to involve a school resource officer."
He said school officials also consider other factors, such as a history of depression, prior threats or attempts, and if the student "has the intent as well as the means," meaning a plan, or access to weapons or drugs.
The majority of adolescents ages 15 to 24 use firearms, with suffocation the next most-often used, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control. Young women are at more risk than young men: About 17 percent of females have considered killing themselves, about 13 percent have planned it, and about 8% have attempted suicide. Less than 10 percent of young men have considered it, about 8 percent have planned a suicide attempt, and fewer than 4 percent have attempted to kill themselves.
Village, which has had to cope with three suicides in the last five years, has a plan in place for when a student kills him or herself.
"The first thing we do is try to alert the staff and get together to go over the plan as quickly as possible," Giglio said. "In each of the last three, we have met before school and then had an assembly to address the students. We do not go into detail or dwell on the reasons but focus on supporting those who are going to need it. We set aside a room where students can come after the assembly and through the next few days if they feel the need."
During that time, he said, if staff sees a student who is particularly hard hit, they might talk one on one with her or him.
"Since Tricia's (death) occurred on a Friday, we opened school Saturday morning with messages spread out by Facebook, emails or phone calls. Several staff members, counselors and I were available for those who showed up," Giglio said. "We would also personally call some families if we know the student was close to the student who passed away. We also begin to put together a list of students to watch over and make sure they have services available and that parents are notified."
Giglio said that process will continue, with students added to or removed from their watch list.
"This process usually lasts several weeks, as we will see students who manifest behaviors or issues well after the incident has passed," he said.
Giglio also said the staff makes sure to check on each other as well, which is particularly important because as professionals, they hold their emotions in check during a crisis.
"We check in frequently with each other, make it OK for staff members to get needed breaks or some counseling if necessary," Giglio said. "We will try to debrief at the end of the day to go over not only details and students, but how we are doing. We might also debrief at staff meetings and have even brought in outside help to process."
Although the small Village school community has been especially hard hit, the district is aware that it's not alone.
"We're seeing an increased number of students with 5150s," said Kevin Johnson, senior director of pupil service. "We have to be open to recognizing mental health issues that need to be dealt with."
Johnson said the district has become more proactive, sending more to school counselors and more to outside counselors as well. He said it's difficult to pinpoint the underlying causes that could lead a student to consider suicide.
"I don't think you can point specifically at any one thing. You have to look at these things as different circumstances," he said. "People are individual and their individual circumstances are different."
Johnson added, however, that relationships and family stress play a part.
Although the district has a list of signs to watch out for, Johnson's advice to parents is more straightforward: Trust your instincts and don't be in denial.
"There is nothing that any of us care about more than our children. When you see drastic change, trust your intuition, and reach out and get help. Don't think it's just going to go away and don't ignore it," he said. "Care and let your student, your child, know you care, that your child never feels that they're alone."
He said that people should react to someone with mental health troubles in the same way they react to someone with another kind of health problem.
"What I would encourage is that we be open about mental health issues and try to help the individual in the same manner that we help with physical issues," Johnson said. "If someone breaks their arm, we go for help. People need to help each other when someone is going through hard times."