Gov. Doug Ducey

Gov. Doug Ducey, flanked by Health Director Dr. Cara Christ, left, and Kathy Hoffman, superintendent of public instruction, spoke at Hamilton High School in Chandler last week  about the surge in suicides.

State officials are trying to stave off what they fear could be a spike in suicides, possibly linked to the COVID-19 outbreak and the depression that can go along with that.

During a press conference at Hamilton High School in Chandler, Health Director Cara Christ acknowledged last Thursday she has no hard figures on suicides since the outbreak, stating it takes six months for her agency to get death certificates.

But Gov. Doug Ducey said the indications are there.

“According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Americans reporting symptoms of depression registered a threefold jump compared to before the pandemic,’’ he said. 

And Ducey said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than one out of every 10 adults reported thoughts of suicide in the past 30 days, more than double from two years earlier.

He said these are more than numbers, representing family, friends, coworkers and acquaintances.

“Many of them are struggling during this time of increased isolation and heightened stress,’’ the governor said. “And we must be there for them.’’

And Ducey said some groups are more vulnerable, including seniors, veterans and young people.

Christ said Arizona already had a problem before the pandemic. She said a survey of teens produced some “alarming insights’’ about the issue.

For example, she said that 40 percent of those in grades 9 through 12 said they felt so sad and helpless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row that they stopped doing some usual activities. That, Christ said, is higher than national estimates.

But it doesn’t stop there.

She said nearly 21 percent of high schoolers indicated they had contemplated suicide, 16 percent had made a plan, 10 percent actually attempted to kill themselves and 4 percent said that attempt resulted in an injury that required medical attention.

And even before kids get to high school, it’s an issue: Suicide is the leading cause of death in Arizona of children age 10 through 14, the governor said.

“As a mother, this information is worrisome,’’ Christ said.

The prolonged closure of schools has exacerbated the problem, many experts have said, because children and teens of all ages have been isolated from their friends – and possibly helpful adults on school staffs.

Many also are in homes impacted by job loss and even health issues related to the pandemic.

The press conference came close to a year after Ducey signed into law the bipartisan-sponsor Mitch Warnock Act, which requires suicide awareness and prevention training for all school personnel – even bus drivers and cafeteria workers – who work with students in grades 6 through 12.

That law took effect this school year and Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said training was already underway.

But several speakers said suicide is not just an issue for teens.

Wanda Wright, director of the state Department of Veterans’ Services, rattled off her own statistics.

She said veterans account nationally and in Arizona for 18 percent of total suicides, twice their share of U.S. population.

 And Wright said the risk of suicide for veterans in Arizona is three time higher than non-veterans -- and four times higher for older veterans.

Hoffman and Jami Snyder, director of the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, detailed some of the programs being offered to provide mental health counseling, many of them through schools.

Ducey also boasted about the state putting $20 million in the budget last year for additional guidance counselors.

 But schools also can use that cash for social workers and school resource officers, the latter category made up of police officers stationed at schools.

Moreover, there was not enough money to meet all the districts’ requests.

The governor did not dispute that the state has among the highest ratio of students per guidance counselor. He said, though, the dedicated dollars are a major investment in a state that several years ago had a $1 billion deficit.

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