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RISD adding to suicide prevention training

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The pandemic and its stay-at-home orders have raised concerns about increases in suicide, especially among youth isolated from their teachers and fellow students, but officials with the Roswell school district say an event several years ago has helped them better address suicide prevention.

A team of counselors, social workers and administrators are also looking at how to handle continued trauma when students are able to return to their schools.

Risk assessments

It wasn’t a suicide, but rather the 2014 shooting at Berrendo Middle School that prompted the district to look at how it assesses the risk of threats and suicide among students.

In January of that year, a 12-year-old seventh-grader brought a shotgun to school and fired it in the gym shortly before classes began, critically wounding two students.

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“At that point, we took a really deep dive into what assessments we were using, and what we found is that it was very sporadic throughout our schools and our mental health providers, our social workers who predominantly work with special education and then our counselors,” said Cynthia Price, an RISD social worker.

She is one of a team that focuses on social-emotional learning, or SEL, in the district, that includes the district’s lead counselor Bruce Gaucher, social workers Megan Delaney and Brent Clay, and Jennifer Cole, assistant superintendent for curriculum.

In August 2014, RISD rolled out a suicide assessment program that looked at the risks and characteristics of suicidal thinking and how the district would approach suicide prevention.

“We were starting to make the assessment pretty clear that we, as mental health providers in the schools, were going to take the first step to address it instead of referring out to our community providers,” Price said.

Outside agencies

The district does work with outside agencies such as Court Appointed Special Advocates and La Casa Behavioral Health, however, especially in situations considered critical, Gaucher said.

“Whenever there’s a crisis and we do our work in the schools, we connect the family to outside services. We work with the family to get further services because I see it as we’re like a big family working together, and when a crisis comes down on a family, we all need to help each other,” he said.

The district takes a three-part approach — suicide prevention through social-emotional learning, assessment of children’s needs and the needs in the schools and community, and intervention including referrals to outside agencies for counseling or assistance to families.

The SEL team was working last spring on revising its assessments to include plans for students who had received counseling and were reentering schools.

Nationally certified and licensed school psychologists were in Roswell for a two-day training on suicide and threat assessments, interventions and streamlining the referral process to those outside agencies.

“We were looking at our data to see how many schools are yielding x-number of assessments, which schools are highest need and what can we do to help support those schools,” Delaney said.

“Then right as we were getting into that, the pandemic happened, which skewed our data and showed that we do have a need for social-emotional learning,” she said.

Suicide rates in NM

Early data suggests concerns about higher suicide rates due to the pandemic are not unfounded.

New Mexico already ranks high among suicide rates in the nation, and in 2018 had the nation’s highest rate at 25.6 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Youth suicides account for about 15% of the suicides in the state, and New Mexico has been in the top 15 states for teen suicide since 2014, according to a December action plan on suicide prevention from the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee.

“Preliminary 2020 data show a continuing high number of suicides and localized evidence could be cause for concerns of a worsening trend,” the committee’s report said.

While overall the number of suicides in New Mexico did not increase in 2020 as of October, in May there were 19 more suicides and seven more in July than in those months in 2019, according to data from the New Mexico Department of Health and New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator.

That data also shows a slight overall increase of deaths by suicide among those under the age of 24 in New Mexico. Seven youths under the age of 14 died by suicide between January and October 2020, two more than the year before. Among 15- to 24-year-olds, 66 died by suicide, three more than in 2019.

In 2019 in Chaves County, according to the New Mexico Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey of those in grades nine to 12, 11% of students said they had attempted suicide in the previous year. Almost 18% planned suicide and 19% said they had seriously considered suicide, while 43% said they had feelings of sadness or hopelessness.

Those numbers have been on the rise since 2015, when 10% of students surveyed said they had attempted suicide, 12% had made a plan, 15% said they had seriously considered suicide and 32% had feelings of sadness or hopelessness.

The survey is conducted every other year by NMDOH, PED and the University of New Mexico School of Medicine Prevention Research Center.

Daily check-in systems

Without the face-to-face interaction among students and school staffs, the district had to come up with other ways to make the initial assessments that students might be at risk for suicide.

One of those is a daily check-in system for students online, which the district is working on making available for all schools. A questionnaire asks students how they are feeling and sends the responses to the teachers.

“The teachers immediately get that, so they start their day off looking at how the students are doing, how are they feeling, how they are subjectively doing, and then if a teacher sees a trigger or something challenging, they can meet with the student and they can make a referral to us,” Gaucher said.

Trigger word software

The district’s information technology department also plays a role. Software installed in the district’s networks is set to screen for certain trigger words that alert the IT department, who then alert the student’s school administrator and counselor, Cole said.

“If a student types in the word ‘suicide,’ we know and we’re on that,” Gaucher said. “We check into that. It may be they’re just googling something for a research paper, but we need to know. We get those alerts and that’s helpful.”

When necessary, counselors have a student and their family come to their school for further assessments, Delaney said, but if the family is not able to get to the school, virtual sessions are conducted.

“They are doing those assessments on Zoom as well, just to make sure that child is safe and what can we do to help support the family,” she said.

Continued training

Continued training is also an important factor. Gaucher said the district’s counselors receive four to five hours of training every few weeks to help set up counseling programs that meet the standards of the American School Counselor Association along with issues in SEL and related topics.

The team has also been working with the schools on applications for grants through the PED for further professional development on social-emotional learning curriculum.

Clay and Price are also working on training that will be happening Monday on trauma-informed schools with an eye on the future.

“Our aim is to educate our administrators as well as our teachers and prepare them for what’s to come, what to look for when students return,” Clay said.

The training will focus on what trauma is, the different types and the effects it can have on students.

Teachers are already dealing with students suffering trauma from the pandemic, Clay said, and the training will give them tools to work with.

“They have training in education, they have training in theories related to education, but our objective is to make sure that they’re equipped for the spillover of this pandemic. They’re going to have to adapt to a lot more,” he said.

Counselors and social workers will continue to meet once a month to evaluate the three-part approach and what further training and support could be brought to the district, Price said.

“It takes a lot of us to make it work well, but this team has been doing it for some time and we continue to hone in on the skills we’ve had in place since 2014. We’ve learned a lot from the process and revisions and we continue to get better at this,” she said.

“Ultimately we don’t know what to expect,” Clay said. “But we’re prepared for whatever may come with our team being in place, the trainings going forward. I think that’s a safe place to be right now.”

City/RISD reporter Juno Ogle can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or reporter04@rdrnews.com.

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