Psychologist’s nonprofit addresses teen suicide

Chandler psychologist Dr. Paula McCall is the founder of The Semicolon Society, a nonprofit to help offer mental health education and suicide prevention. (David Minton/Staff Photographer)

A period represents the end of a sentence, a paragraph or perhaps a book. A semicolon, however, means there is more to come. It has become a symbol for suicide awareness.

Younger Americans are getting semicolon tattoos if they know someone who has considered suicide and for whatever reason is moving forward. They have not reached their end yet.

Dr. Paula McCall started the Semicolon Society in June to address the growing teen mental health crisis the nation is facing. It became an official nonprofit in early August. The Arizona Department of Health reported that 219 people 24 and younger took their lives in 2019, the most recent data posted.

Teen suicide has become a top issue in the city and region after three Chandler Unified School District students ended their lives in a 12-day span last May. Another CUSD student took her life about two weeks into this school year.

The Department of Health said there were 1,540 suicides in Arizona in 2019, and nearly 46,000 Americans killed themselves in 2020 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I started working in the school districts on things like suicide, risk assessments and prevention,” said McCall, a licensed psychologist. “And then I shifted that as I moved into my private practice, I started shifting into wanting to reach out to the community. I live in Chandler, my practice is in Chandler, my kids go to school in Chandler, so Chandler is my home.”

McCall said the rise in teen suicides began in 2007, but the reasons behind it are not easy to pinpoint. Certainly the rise of social media plays a role, but she points out most young people have lived with social media all their lives, and they don’t know a world without it.

She noted data indicating a considerable drop in suicides was recorded in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That’s an interesting thing to consider because there’s lots of pieces there,” she said. “There wasn’t the stress of in-person school, but there was the stress of online school and trying to figure that out. If you think about it from a family system perspective, you had families that were in general, not across the board, but there were many families that ended up much closer, proximity wise with each other, being around each other, just connecting in a physical sense more often.

“So a lot of experience of parents and kids being around each other more and not in a rushed way. It was ‘we’re home, we can’t really go anywhere.

We’re here.’”

A lot of what the Semicolon Society is doing is parental education, helping moms and dads know the signs of suicidal thoughts. McCall said in her ideal world, children are growing up learning about suicides, LGBTQ+, sex and other issues that are uncomfortable for some parents.

“The thing is, as parents, we don’t have to go into these conversations and give a narrative and give a research paper and give you all the answers to all the world,” McCall said.

“We can say, ‘Hey, I realized that someone died by suicide in your school this week, and I wanted to talk to you about that. And, I want to know if you’ve ever had thoughts about suicide, and I want to know your feelings about what’s going on.’ We need to listen to our kids.”

McCall wants CUSD and other school districts to work more with local nonprofits, saying they cannot address the problem alone. She said some of the nonprofits have expertise that can help, say in addressing suicides by LGBTQ+ students, or African American males, which are both higher than other segments.

The one thing she said parents and school districts need to do is to talk about suicides.

“I think there’s still a fear there… that if we talk about it too much it spreads too much,” she said. “And we have to keep it contained on this campus. But the thing is that our kids talk. When I talked to my own son, he’s 15.

I asked him about … ‘what do you think about this idea that if I talk to you about suicide, you know, that you’re gonna think about attempting suicide?’ He’s like, ‘I already know about suicide, like it’s out there. You’re talking about it, don’t give yourself that much credit.’”

Information: semicolonsociety.org

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