Deaths from suicide have surpassed car accidents since 2009, according to the Center for Disease Control.
During the 2012-13 school year in Truckee, three young people, two of whom were students and one who graduated in 2008, killed themselves, which sparked the conversation for the need for mental health services for students.
Schools in Grass Valley, Tahoe and Truckee implemented a mental health screening through What’s Up Wellness Checkups last year, the results of which were recently released to reveal that nearly half of students exhibited results that were cause for concern.
Out of Bear River, Nevada Union, Ghidotti Early College, Bitney College Preparatory, Truckee, Sierra, North Tahoe high schools and Park Avenue Alternative Education site, 213 students were screened. Of those, 80 tested “positive” for having symptoms or impairments present that needed addressing and 59 were provided case management through local agencies, said Jennifer Rhi Winders, outreach and case manager for What’s Up Wellness Checkups.
According to Rebecca Slade, program manager for Nevada County Children’s Behavioral Health, What’s Up Wellness Checkups is based on an evidence-based suicide and depression screening tool developed by Columbia University’s “TeenScreen” program that more than 500 school sites have been using in the United States for more a decade.
Students were asked questions and interviewed to discuss symptoms and life difficulties, said What’s Up Wellness Checkups clinical coordinator Shellee Sepko. Referrals were provided when necessary, Sepko said, adding the entire process is confidential, and information is shared with parents upon student consent.
Bear River High School student Sierra Mitchell says the teenage years can be difficult, burdened with peer pressure and the need to be accepted and fit in. This is compounded by social media, she said, which enables an additional outlet for bullying and feeling a need to have more friends or followers. Face-to-face conversation and connection is also stifled, and important conversations about issues or concerns are often missed. Mitchell participated in the screening and found the program to be effective.
“I think the results coming back and us figuring out that there were kids out there who needed the help was really cool,” said Mitchell, also a peer leader in Sources of Strengths, a program implemented at local high schools through Nevada County Behavioral Health.
“We did a presentation where we held signs of worries people have and showed what strengths can help them,” Mitchell said, adding the group focuses on concepts of generosity, positive friends and healthy activities as ways of leading a healthy and happy life.
“I think that’s important, that everyone feels comfortable coming to school every day,” said Mitchell. “I’ve seen one or two students use staff members (as mentors) for help. The activities we’ve done during lunch, of just asking kids who they think their biggest mentor is, have opened up their eyes that there is somebody on campus they can talk to.”
The confidential message of the wellness checkup process made Mitchell feel comfortable in answering questions honestly, she said.
“Kids nowadays want to talk to somebody, but they’re afraid their story is going to get out or that they are going to get made fun of,” she said. “I think that them reassuring everybody that it is confidential and that your answers aren’t going to go out, a situation like that is definitely effective.”
The results of the screening were surprising and difficult at first, said Sepko, after she became aware of the number of teens struggling with serious mental health symptoms. But she said she is grateful for the opportunity to find teens in need of help. The screenings have provided teens an opportunity to open up about issues they are going through that many are unaware of, Sepko said.
“I think taking the time to listen to teens is so crucial,” she said. “Asking them directly about their feelings and even about their thoughts of suicide can be a scary topic to approach, but these open conversations need to happen.”
What’s Up Wellness Checkup coordinators are trying to work with local therapists and agencies to put more services in place for teens and to normalize mental health checkups as part of ongoing health maintenance of teenagers, Sepko said.
“Mental health is as important as physical health,” she said.
High schools in the Truckee and Tahoe area have a wellness center on campus, where students can hang out and receive guidance, something that could be brought to Nevada County, said Jennifer Rhi Winders, an outreach and case manager.
“We see it as a really successful model up in Truckee, in light of some tragedies more recently, their wellness centers at high schools,” she said. “We’re trying to look at what’s worked in other communities.”
The center is no more than a classroom on campus, said wellness center liaison Kristen Picard, with designated hours of operation and a staff of two district-hired employees and volunteers.
Picard said she has seen firsthand some instances of students who were in significant need of services and who otherwise may have never received guidance and may have faced serious consequences.
“We provide access to community resources. If someone comes in and it seems they need those extra levels of support, we connect with school staff or give them access to local resources,” Picard said. “They have opportunities to chat with us, and the space is totally confidential, so kids can come in and talk about whatever they want.
“Really what it’s turned into is assessing those situations and taking those steps. We get a lot of feedback from students that it feels safe and comfortable and they can just be themselves.”
Screenings will take place throughout the school year, and signed consent forms will be accepted year-round. Any high school student can be screened.
For downloads of parent consent forms, visit www.njuhsd.com/wellnescheckups
To contact Staff Writer Jennifer Terman, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4230.