Stopping Suicide in Our Schools

Santa Barbara’s Educational System Strives to Help Teenagers Succeed amid Cell Phones and Stress

AHA! is helping Santa Barbara High School implement social-emotional .learning, which helps students cope with stress.

Paul Wellman

AHA! is helping Santa Barbara High School implement social-emotional .learning, which helps students cope with stress.

There’s an undercurrent of teenage emotional distress that’s causing Santa Barbara school leaders to rethink how they educate students.

The catalyst: a series of teen deaths in the county and more than 100 attempted teen suicides in Santa Barbara Unified School District over the past two years ​— ​along with findings that show some Santa Barbara secondary students report high levels of stress, depression, anxiety, and feelings of isolation.

With nationwide trends mirroring what we see happening here, Santa Barbara educators and their community mental-health partners are rallying behind an instructional intervention that has the power to create a true sea of change.

Known as social-emotional learning (SEL), the approach teaches students about self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, and relationship and social awareness: all soft skills foundationally important to becoming a healthy adult. They’re also critical skills for surviving and thriving in the often tumultuous teenage years, when the part of the brain that controls reasoning, emotions, decision-making, and judgment is not yet fully developed.

Fresh from a conference in New Mexico on the benefits of social-emotional education, Frann Wageneck, Santa Barbara Unified School District assistant superintendent of Student Services, wants to see an infusion of SEL integrated throughout the K-12 school day. She said the New Mexico convening reconfirmed what educators here have come to realize.

“The keynote speaker said that emotional distress is one of the defining characteristics of this generation ​— ​the post-millennials ​— ​and that really hit me in the gut,” said Wageneck, whose role includes supporting school counselors and serving as the point person for community mental-health partners. “We are seeing a lot of emotional distress in our students. In terms of youth mental health and the epidemic of suicide attempts in the last few years, we need to get control of that.”

Suicide Signals

Last year, Santa Barbara Unified School District counselors were trained on and then delivered the Signs of Suicide (SOS) program to 8,456 students in grades 7-12. The program focuses on depression awareness and suicide prevention and includes a dramatization video with lessons on recognizing “red flag” students who need immediate support from a trusted adult.

Also included is a mental-health screening that asks students whether they’ve ever attempted suicide or experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings of depression. The findings, which Wageneck shared with district officials in June, revealed the following:

  • 62 suicide attempts reported in grades 7-12 (2016-17)
  • 41 suicide attempts reported in grades 7-12 (2017-18)
  • 625 students seen by a counselor or therapist
  • 168 students “red flagged”
  • 14 safety calls made, meaning a student was checked on immediately
  • 29 community mental-health professionals involved

The data validates the trend that many educators may have felt for some time but have been unable to establish in scope. A lingering stigma associated with admitting depression or mental illness can cause students to bottle up emotions. And there is extreme delicacy around the topic of suicide. There were four confirmed teen suicides in our region in the past two years. In some cases, there’s doubt as to whether a death was caused by suicide or was accidental, which can lead to confusion and ambiguity.

These considerations must be balanced against the need for a larger, open, honest community discussion around causes and prevention strategies, according to those who work directly with students.

“The pressures and effects of cell phones and social media can cause students to get caught in a comparison game,” falsely thinking that other people’s lives are better than their own, explained Laura Dorfman, a Santa Barbara teacher on special assignment as coordinator of district-wide restorative approaches and social-emotional

education implementation. “SEL and the restorative approaches philosophy help school staff to really understand the humanity of each student and their story, to figure out how to best support them as individuals at school when they face so much adversity outside of it. SEL is not new, but it’s been gaining traction recently as a priority in education in response to disturbing trends in teen mental health and wellness.”

AHA! Moments

Jennifer Freed is cofounder/codirector of AHA! (Attitude, Harmony, Achievement), a Santa Barbara organization that has provided SEL to thousands of area youth since its founding in 1999. The call for more social-emotional education is music to Freed’s ears. Currently, AHA! is involved in Santa Barbara schools during students’ freshman year via freshman seminar or health class, but the organization has limited interaction with students after that unless a student chooses to attend an AHA! after-school or summer program.

Freed has noticed that teens may internalize societal, technological, and political angst. “Hating has become much more popular since leadership in this country lauds bullying behavior; digital obsessiveness and consequent rampant disassociation contribute to massive alienation and loneliness,” said Freed. “All kids are at high risk because if they feel despair and desolation, their brains do not have the objectivity of this period passing. The brain is still developing perspective and discernment. What we need to focus on is social connection and managing intense emotions and removing the shame and stigma of painful emotions. We need to teach teens to reach out instead of turn their desperation inwards.”

AHA! coordinator Melissa Lowenstein runs a pilot program delivering social-emotional education to the fifth-period student leadership class on Wednesdays at Santa Barbara High. Lowenstein said some students seem weighed down by the pressures of “achieving, keeping up, and getting into the right college.” She’s noticed increased levels of anxiety, divisiveness, and what she calls “othering” in the air.

“Add to this the isolation that comes with the dramatic rise in digital immersion ​— ​where kids are more likely to stay home with their digital devices than to forge strong networks of relationship ​— ​and you have a toxic combination of loneliness/isolation, fear, and uncertainty,” Lowenstein said.

Santa Barbara High 11th-grader Jacqueline Morrison says she looks forward to the weekly visit from AHA! counselors, which always includes sharing in small groups and exercises, such as “roses and thorns,” where students verbalize what’s going well, and what’s not, in a safe environment. The key of the lesson is that students learn to release what may be a pent-up problem but also practice gratitude, which has the power to flip mind-sets.

“AHA! has been able to educate us in ways outside of academics,” she said. “It’s been an awesome opportunity to step away from all that’s stressing us out and take time to reflect on life and the things we are lucky to have.”

Fellow fifth-period student Gilbert Regalado, a senior, called the experience “life changing.” He explained, “We’ve had the pleasure of learning more about ourselves and the people around us.”

Coping 101

Traditionally, secondary schools have focused on instruction in the core academic subjects, such as history, math, science, reading, and language arts. But there is no mandatory coursework on building good coping skills, problem-solving, or navigating the pressures of life. Educational research supports the idea that social, emotional, and academic learning can go hand-in-hand, and Wageneck wants to see that happen here.

“It’s easy to think of socio-emotional learning as a separate curriculum, but in the 21st century, we need to speak about school in a different way,” Wageneck said. “The compartmentalization of academic subjects really doesn’t serve today’s children and youth. We have an old, entrenched educational system that has been around for 160 years, and we have to shift that.”

Sky Mainz, a senior at Santa Barbara High, spoke candidly about how she views the paradox of today’s teenager: on the cusp of adulthood and yet somehow already knee-deep in adult-like stress.

“With the pressure of academics and school, it’s sometimes just too much,” said Mainz. Not unlike most of her friends, she’s balancing a full load of advanced-placement courses, a varsity sport, a job, college application deadlines, and a social and family life. Juggling those responsibilities is one thing, but for Mainz and other students, there was a toll taken following the deaths of several peers, not to mention the sense of devastation, in the wake of the Montecito debris flow.

“Counselors should be teaching young people how to have good balance in life ​— ​not too much tunnel vision, where they focus too much on one thing and get too consumed by one thing,” Mainz said. “I think that’s why I fall behind sometimes. It’s hard to have both: balance and staying on top of academics. For kids who have tunnel vision, when something doesn’t go the way they want it to, it becomes life or death for them. And it’s just so sad.”

Santa Barbara High Principal Elise Simmons said she’s convinced that social-emotional learning can be embedded throughout the school day as teachers are supported and trained to rethink how they relate to students.

“What it comes down to is students feel, ‘I just need somebody I know loves and cares about me, and helps me find my passion, and wants me to do well in my life,’” said Simmons. “As adults, we need to help them, love them, get to know them and what their passions are, and create a space for them to soar and thrive."

Read more:

Schools of Thought 2018 | Examining the state of education in Santa Barbara.

Warning signs for suicide can include feelings of being trapped or a burden; increased use of alcohol or drugs; loss of interest in favorite activities (“nothing matters”); suicidal thoughts, plans, or actions; sudden mood changes, even for the better; giving up on oneself; taking risks; disturbed sleep; anxiety; agitation; withdrawing from friends and family; extreme self-loathing; feeling like an outsider; hopelessness; and rage.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255, or text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. For more information on suicide prevention, including warning signs and risk factors, visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org. A list of regional resources can be found at countyofsb.org/admhs.