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Superintendent’s Statement Regarding CDC and SAMHSA’s Youth Suicide Report for Santa Clara County (Epi-Aid report)

Good afternoon, MHUSD community,

This morning the Santa Clara County Public Health Department (SCCPHD) released a report on the findings of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) investigation into youth suicides across Santa Clara County. The investigation by the CDC and SAMHSA, conducted over the last year, was prompted by the tragic occurrences of multiple suicides in Palo Alto in the last decade.

The purpose of the report was to understand characteristics and trends of fatal and non-fatal suicidal behavior among youth in Santa Clara County. As the findings were analyzed, the numbers revealed that the City of Morgan Hill had occurrences statistically similar to those in Palo Alto for the data collection period between 2003 and 2014. Specifically, the suicide rate for 10 to 24 year olds in Santa Clara County was 5.4 per 100,000, comparable to the California suicide rate of 5.3 per 100,000. The suicide rate for youth nationwide was higher than the county and state rate. However, within Santa Clara County, the City of Palo Alto had the highest suicide rate for 10 to 24 year olds (14.1 per 100,000), followed by the City of Morgan Hill (12.7 per 100,000).

Understandably, these final numbers caught us off guard. However, when looking at these numbers we must be cognizant of the fact that the report classifies “youth” as ages 10-24 and does not specifically focus on school aged children. The findings show that two-thirds, or 66%, of all suicides were committed by young adults between ages 20 and 24. Therefore, the statistics that came out of the eleven-year study are startling but not a reflection of our student body.

What is confirmed by the report is that, over the last 11 years, two Morgan Hill suicides were MHUSD students, the most recent being six years ago.

As a community, getting this information is the first step for all school agencies, city officials, and social support businesses to look at what resources we are using and how we are talking to students and adults about suicide and mental health. This report gives us all an opportunity to evaluate our prevention and intervention methods and will assist us developing further strategies to help those in need.

Although the vast majority of suicides in Santa Clara County and Morgan Hill, are not school aged children, the number of attempts and thoughts of suicide, or ideation, reflect the statistics throughout the United States and are the highest in the age range of 15-19. Due to this, we are taking a serious look at these numbers, and have begun reviewing our current prevention and intervention methods, ways we can strengthen them, and additional ways we can ensure that every student on our campuses is getting the attention and interaction he or she needs to form meaningful bonds with teaching and administration staff.

Youth suicide is a complex issue and prevention takes a multi-layered approach. It has both risk and protective factors at the individual, family and peer, and school and community levels that we can all influence in a positive way. The findings concluded that noticeable protective factors among high school students for thoughts of suicide and attempts include: having positive relationships with their school and community; having a caring relationship with a teacher or adult on a school campus; high school connectedness; and academic motivation. It is these protective factors that we, as a school district, can create influence with a direct and positive impact. The most recent student suicide being six years ago (2011), signals that the strategies and programs we have put place since are effective. Some of the efforts that MHUSD has implemented include:

Prevention and Intervention Strategies

In collaboration with Discovery Counseling Centers, we have 21 Intern and Trainee MFT therapists assigned to 13 of our schools and we provide, at a minimum, two days a week of full-time services at every school. At anytime, if a staff member is alerted to a despondent student counseling services are immediately available, including during school off times such as weekends, holidays, and over summer break. All interns and trainees receive extensive training on detecting signs/symptoms of depression, suicidal ideation, and intent, as well as on-site support for students via consultation from clinical supervisors.  

Every student identified with depression (regardless of severity) is provided a Safety Plan which is shared with the student’s family and appropriate school personnel. Those students who fall into the “moderate to severe” categories of depression are referred for more intensive center-based treatment. Students who return to campus following psychiatric hospitalization for major depressive episodes resulting from danger to self/danger to others are assisted with re-entry support.

Safe Learning Environment for all Students

We are continually working with our campus staff and School Resource Officer to provide a safe and welcoming learning environment for all students. With the introduction of Restorative Justice and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) on our campuses we are moving in the right direction to minimize bullying and helping students make better and more positive choices when they feel overwhelmed.

Overall, the report findings and recommendations offer valuable information and data to help guide next steps for our Morgan Hill community. The report affirms our school district’s current efforts, validates available data, and offers important recommendations to help us persist as a community to address suicide and youth well-being.

While this report provides valuable information about suicide behaviors in our community, there are questions the report does not answer and cannot answer because suicide is such a complex topic. That said, we do know that suicide can be prevented and individuals with suicidal thoughts and feelings can be helped. It is important to know that people who have struggled with thoughts of suicide, and even those who have attempted suicide, can and do recover and go on to lead full and active lives.

This research shows that individuals, schools, community organizations, businesses and government organizations, as well as the news media, have a role to play in reducing stigma and preventing suicide in our community. Conversations around mental health should not be hidden or suppressed, and we take the responsibility given to us to protect our students seriously. We will be taking this opportunity to look for ways to encourage students and staff to talk more openly about mental health and suicide in our community and on our campuses, with the hope of combating the stigma surrounding it. Mental health issues — the most common precipitating factor in suicide — is just like any other health issue and we should not shy away from having open and honest conversations about them.

We will continue to work with our local resource providers and be in contact with the Santa Clara County Behavioral Health Department to learn more about early intervention and what additional steps we can take to safeguard students and begin a healthy dialogue around this topic.

Parents, teachers, staff, and students should continue to be vigilant in looking for common warning signs, including a change in behavior or mood, or statements about wanting to die. Know the predictors for higher risk of self-harm which include:

  • Students who have been bullied or targeted for assault, hate crimes, or discrimination;
  • LGBTQ students, especially following recent self-disclosures of sexual orientation;
  • Special education, foster care, homeless students;
  • Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder who attempt to manage overwhelming anxiety but are not able to break out of obsessional thinking or fixed ideation;
  • Female middle-school students who commit to loyalty pacts which often begins with self-mutilation and progresses to more serious attempts; and
  • Students who are heavily involved in alcohol or other drug abuse as a means to manage low mood.

If you, or anyone you know, is contemplating suicide there is help available. Please call the Santa Clara County Suicide and Crisis Services line, 1-855-278-4204. It is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and open to everyone.

Sincerely,

Steve Betando

MHUSD Superintendent