School district expands crisis response team

Wednesday, June 28, 2017 - 13:01
  • Photo illustration by Matt Tunseth/Chugiak-Eagle River Star
  • Rain falls at Fire Lake on June 5, 2017. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)

From North Slope villages to cities in Southcentral Alaska, from Emmonak to Eagle River, communities across the state are bound together by a shared tragedy.

Alaska’s teen suicide rate spikes well above the national average, according to data from the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute for Social and Economic Research. Between 2007 and 2011, 42 Alaska teenagers took their own lives. Over the same time period, suicide was the second leading cause of death for Alaskan children ages 10-17.

The trauma of any youth suicide ripples through classrooms, schools and communities. In response, the Anchorage School District is working to expand its Crisis Response Team, a specialized network trained to handle major traumas in local schools.

Organized by the district’s psychology department, the team is comprised of more than a dozen ASD staff members, said Paula Patterson, ASD assistant director of related services.

“We have a lot of people on the list,” Patterson said. “They come in to support that school community.”

The crisis team is based on a model championed by the National Association of School Psychologists – PREPaRE – which involves preventing psychological trauma, reaffirming physical health, evaluating psychological trauma risk, providing interventions, responding to psychological need and examining the effectiveness of crisis prevention and intervention, according to NASP.

In the wake of a major trauma, like a student suicide, the crisis team follows a predictable chain of command, Patterson said. School resource officers reach out to district administrators, usually assistant superintendent Mike Graham. Graham calls Patterson, who contacts crisis team members and school principals. They’ll talk about the situation and determine the response.

“It’s really based on the needs of the school,” Patterson said.

In some cases, the crisis team might send three psychologists to the affected school. Sometimes they send more. Sometimes they stay for days.

The crisis team members set up in a central part of the school, like the library, and meet with students and faculty affected by the recent trauma, Patterson said. They work to identify students in distress and get them the help they need, slowing the trauma rippling through the school. Suicide prevention and awareness are paramount, school administrators said.

The team usually responds to about half-a-dozen crisis situations per year, according to school administrators.

School counselors and other mental health staff are always part of the crisis team’s response, Patterson said.

“It’s difficult when a crisis takes place, because we have our own connections with kids,” said Eagle River High School Principal Marty Lang.

As principal, he said, he works to ensure school students and staff have the support they need in times of trauma. While communication is key, administrators said, social media adds a layer of complexity to already delicate situations.

“It adds a level of unpredictably of how information is going to get out, and how it’s going to spread,” Lang said. “It also tends to spin off in multiple directions with inaccurate information, so just trying to predict how students are going to hear about things, what they’re going to hear, becomes more difficult.”

No easy answers

In tight-knit school communities, word spreads fast. Often, students hope to memorialize lost classmates, “one of the more difficult things to address in the midst of an unexpected death of a student,” Lang said.

The gestures are well-intentioned but fraught.

“I’ll cut to the chase,” Lang said. “When you memorialize a student who has committed suicide, you run the risk of drawing attention to the terrible choice that they made.”

To avoid that, student memorials are generally not permitted within Eagle River High School, the principal said. Instead, students are urged to direct their efforts to more “appropriate” venues – funerals, memorial services or suicide prevention efforts.

District spokeswoman Heidi Embley said the district leaves such decisions up to principals, and that Eagle River’s approach is in line with the district’s guidelines on the issue. It’s not that administrators don’t sympathize with grieving students — there are real fears about drawing too much attention to a teen’s self harm. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the wrong kind of attention can trigger suicide contagion, an increase in suicides sparked by exposure to suicide or suicidal behavior.

“And that’s my biggest fear, as an administrator,” Lang said.

Contagion can be caused by many factors and driven by entertainment and social media, and the issue is at the forefront of psychological discussions on the topic. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the hit Netflix series ‘13 Reasons Why’ — which chronicles one teen girl’s fictitious suicide — “has some dangerous potential for contagion.” School memorials for students lost to suicide can have a similar effect, according to the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide.

Preventing tragedies

Prevention should always be the focus, Patterson said.

“Those students at risk – they’re already at risk,” she said. “You want to recognize that a student has passed away, but you do have to be careful about how that’s done.”

In FY2016, the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development trained nearly 5,000 Alaskans in suicide prevention, according to a 2016 report by the Statewide Suicide Prevention Council. The ASD Crisis Response Team continues to add new members, Patterson said.

The district teaches suicide prevention thorough its Health Education programs in middle school. ASD also offers a one-page “Tips of Keeping Your Child Safe” handout to help parents recognize the potential warning signs of suicide and things they can do to prevent tragedy.

Developed from National Association of School Psychologist guidelines, the tip sheet includes risk factors for suicide, which can include (but aren’t limited to) loss of a significant other, family and personal stress, problems at school, substance abuse, previous suicide attempts, questions about sexual orientation, previous suicide of peer or family member, depression or other mental health issues, and access to weapons or other means of harming oneself.

According to the guidelines, students having suicidal thoughts may exhibit symptoms such as changes in behavior, grades, appearance or eating/sleeping habits; withdrawal from friends; reckless behavior; self-inflicted injuries; suicidal threats or comments; saying goodbye to family or friends; making a will; or giving away prized possessions.

The tip sheet notes it’s important to remember the information is general in nature.

“Not all students who contemplate suicide or die by suicide will exhibit these kinds of symptoms AND not all students who exhibit these behaviors are suicidal,” it reads.

How to help

The Anchorage School District recommends several things parents, teachers or peers can do if someone seems like they’re having trouble. Advice from the district’s pamphlet:

* Ask. Talking about suicide does not make a student suicidal. Asking if someone is having suicidal thoughts gives him/her permission to talk about it. Asking sends the message that you are concerned and want to help.

* Take signs seriously. Studies have found that more than 75% of people who die by suicide showed some of the warning signs in the weeks or months prior to their death.

*Get help. If you have concerns that your child is suicidal, seek immediate help from a mental health practitioner. Suicidal students need to be evaluated by an expert in assessing risk and developing treatment plans. Parents can contact school psychologists, counselors or social workers for a listing of resources. Parents may also want to consult with their insurance company to obtain a list of mental health providers covered by their policy. When you call to make an appointment, tell the person on the phone that your child is suicidal and needs to be seen as soon as possible.

* Limit access to weapons, all medications and other means.

* Do not leave him or her alone. It is important that parents surround themselves with a team of supportive friends or family members who can step in and help as needed.

* Reassure your child that life can get better. Many suicidal people have lost all hope that life can improve. They may have difficulty problem solving even simple issues. Remind your child that no matter how bad things are the problem can be worked out. Offer your help.

* Listen. Avoid making statements such as “I know what it’s like” or “I understand.” Instead make statements such as “Help me understand what life is like for you right now.”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers a 24-hour suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255 and 24-hour suicide prevention web chat service at

Contact reporter Kirsten Swann at [email protected]

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