Chandler educator Katey McPherson says 18 East Valley teens took their lives between July 24 and November. Although none have been reported since then, she feels the state Legislature should have passed state Sen. Sean Bowie’s bill requiring suicide-prevention training in schools.
AFN file photo

The East Valley-based movement to prevent teen suicide ran into a temporary roadblock at the Arizona Legislative, where separate bills sponsored by Ahwatukee and Tempe legislators failed to gain adequate support.

Republican-controlled committees in both chambers bottled up the bills, essentially killing them for this session.

That move came despite the fact that at least 18 East Valley teens have taken their lives between July 24 and November, according to Chandler educator Katey McPherson’s unofficial count.

McPherson has been tracking teen suicides in the Valley through her contacts with other educators.

In January, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released new statistics for 2016 showing suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-24 in Arizona.

The measures – introduced by state Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Ahwatukee, and state Rep. Mizti Epstein – sought to require Arizona school districts and charters to provide staff and teachers with two hours of training annually on recognizing suicidal students.

Despite the bills’ defeat, however, both Bowie and McPherson believe teen suicide issue is getting more attention than in the past.

“We are going to keep up the good fight, especially after the tragedy in Florida,’’ McPherson said, referring to the mass shooting at a Florida school last week.

“Our resolve is even stronger about our students getting the connection to services they need,” she added. “We’re not going to stop asking for training when the bill dies. We can’t afford to lose another life.’’

Bowie said he was touched by his conversations with Lorie Warnock, a Mountain Pointe High School English teacher who lost her son, Mitchell Warnock, a Corona del Sol High School student, to suicide.

Bowie named his bill the Mitch Warnock Act.

“Anything we can do to raise awareness and bring attention to the issue is a good thing,’’ Bowie said, vowing to re-introduce a teen suicide bill next year if he wins re-election.

“The more groundswell of support we have, we can encourage districts to take the lead themselves,’’ he added.

Bowie said he realized from the start that it was unlikely the bill would pass in the first attempt, and he is hoping to build momentum to get it passed in the future.

He said some legislators in critical positions were philosophically opposed to the state government mandating school districts.

“I’ve truly been touched by the outpouring of support we’ve received over this bill,’’ Bowie wrote in a newsletter to his constituents, telling them:

“As long as I hold a seat in the State Senate, I’m going to keep pushing this issue forward and get some training that will help our teachers and educators spot the warning signs and find out ways they can help our students.’’

Bowie said he is encouraged that some East Valley districts are making teen suicide prevention a higher priority.

He cited the Kyrene School District’s commitment to promoting the emotional health of students. He said other East Valley districts also are taking important steps toward suicide prevention, with the Tempe Unified School District also providing more training to teachers.

Kyrene Superintendent Jan Vesely wrote in a message to parents that the new middle school model, launched last fall, includes a counselor and an academic behavioral specialist position to address the emotional wellness of students.

“I am committed to working closely with our school leaders, parents, and the Kyrene community to ensure that our most precious resource, our children, are fully supported – academically, socially and emotionally, to be the best they can be,’’ Vesely wrote.

McPherson, director of training at the Gurian Institute, is hosting two social media responsibility events, called “Kids Under the Influence,’’ to educate parents on Internet safety techniques.

The first is on March 20, from 5-8 p.m., at Akimel A-Al Middle School, 2720 E. Liberty Lane in Ahwatukee.

It includes dinner and registration is $25. A second session is planned for May 1 at Kyrene Middle School.

“Kids who feel well do well,’’ McPherson said. “Kids who are not doing well use social media as their voice.’’

She said social media is a contributing factor toward suicide, with children bullied and harassed over image-driven platforms such as Instagram.

Those images can make some children and teens feel they are somehow not good enough, whether it is their appearance or some other factor.

“We are in a mental health crisis due to social media,’’ McPherson said, with kids already under intense pressure to perform well academically. “It’s the performance arms race.’’

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among the 10-14, 12-18 and 18-22 age brackets, said Evelyn Hill, senior divisional director for the Jason Foundation in Hendersonville, Tenn.

The CDC statistics show 152 Arizonans between 15 and 24 killed themselves in 2016, ranking suicide behind the top-ranked cause of death – unintentional injury – at 339.

The actual number of suicides is highest in the 45-54 age bracket – 233 – but ranks as the fifth leading cause of death for people that age.

“Your state has a problem,’’ Hill said, adding that she was not surprised to hear that the Arizona Legislature had rejected a bill aimed at training teachers to recognize the warning signs of suicide.

“It’s because it hasn’t touched them,’’ she said. “Until it touches them, it’s, ‘we have something more important.”

The teen suicide problem is nothing new, but it has been gaining more attention because of the reported number of suicides is likely more accurate and because efforts to break down the stigma associated with mental health, said Brett Marciel, a spokesman for the organization.

He said the only way the Jason Foundation has convinced states to pass mandatory training laws was to provide free videos that can be viewed online.

In 2015, the CDC ranked suicide as the third leading cause of death for people aged 10-24 nationwide, with about 4,600 young people taking their own lives every year.

The CDC found that about 157,000 people in that age bracket were treated at emergency rooms for suicide attempts, that 81 percent of the deaths were boys and 19 percent were girls, but that girls were more likely to attempt suicide.

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