SALEM, OR (KPTV) - With youth suicides in Oregon climbing at alarming rates, public health officials, lawmakers and schools are starting to prioritize mental health as a cornerstone of public education.

The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) tracks youth suicides, which it defines as young people between the ages of 10 and 24.

According to OHA, preliminary state data shows youth suicide increased by 26 percent in 2018. The number of children, teens and young adults taking their own lives has more than doubled in the past decade. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Oregon youth.

The trend in Oregon follows a national phenomenon: youth suicides across the country increased by 56 percent from 2007 to 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The study, published in October 2019, also found that suicides tripled in the same time frame for children ages 10 to 14.

The exact blame of the spike is hard to pin down, according to OHA’s youth suicide prevention coordinator, Jill Baker.

Rather, health experts believe increased anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts stems from a multitude of issues.

Baker said increased screen time, online bullying and social media are thought to be contributing factors in emotional issues teens and children face.

“All of our children are at risk and it’s really hard to draw trends because, the truth is, our kids are stressed out,” Baker said.

That’s why school districts, like Salem-Keizer Public Schools, are putting more emphasis on teaching emotional wellness and suicide prevention -- and not to just high-schoolers.

The district told FOX 12 it’s now surveying and tracking students’ psychological well-being and incorporating age-appropriate mental health lessons at every grade level.

Schools in the district are also expanding employee suicide-prevention training. Now, even bus drivers, cafeteria workers and custodians will know the warning signs to look for in distressed students.

The goal is to keep fewer students from slipping through the cracks, especially when school counselors are often stretched thin.

“I will say that Oregon’s ratio of students to school councilors is atrocious,” Baker said.

Kellie Ward is a counselor at Walker Middle School in Salem.

“It’s not just in our Salem-Keizer community -- but statewide -- as you know, we’re just short,” Ward said. “We’re just short on the resources to get all the help that we need.”

Salem-Keizer Public Schools doesn’t track or report suicides to the state, but the district has experienced heartbreaking losses in recent years.

Ward told FOX 12 she speaks to students in crisis often.

“It has become kind of part of the normal and there’s always that shock value, this is a human life,” Ward said.

Salem-Keizer Public Schools is also bringing outside help into schools. The district has found incredible value in peer support from teens trained to support and encourage others going through tough times.

Emma Cooper, a college student and volunteer with YouthLine, visited Walker Middle School for a special class presentation and sharing session. YouthLine is part of Lines for Life, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing substance abuse and suicide.

“We are doing our stress and coping lesson today,” Cooper said.

“It can feel really overwhelming to see statistics but knowing that every single person has the power to help in this subject, especially because so much of it is talking about suicide,” Cooper added. “I think the main thing that pushes people over the edge is the isolation of all of it and feeling like you can’t talk to other people about it.”

The Oregon Health Authority wants to see more programs like these in schools across the state, and for the first time, it has the resources to help.

Lawmakers recently dedicated $6 million over a two-year period to youth suicide prevention. Baker said the funding will allow OHA to form more partnerships, develop curriculum, and offer grants for training and other suicide-prevention education.

“I’m so excited because in the world of suicide prevention, it’s often fear-based,” Baker said. “But the antidote to suicide thoughts is not fear, it’s hope, it’s connection and relationship-building.”

This coming fall, school districts statewide will be required to have specific suicide prevention and intervention plans. The law comes from Senate Bill 52, also known as Adi’s Act, that passed in July.

Mental health experts believe that with more open, honest conversations comes less shame.

“I do think that there’s less stigma behind it.” Ward said.

Parents should reach out to teenagers to start the conversation about mental health and suicide, Baker said.

“Ask your child, ‘are you having thoughts of suicide? Have you ever thought about suicide?’” Baker said. “Add that to the list of things that you check in with your kid about.”

“A trusted adult in a kid’s life makes or breaks whether they’re okay,” Baker added.

“There’s always hope and there’s always getting through that moment,” Ward said. “It’s just giving them the tools to do that.”

Girls are more likely to attempt suicide, but boys are more likely to die by suicide, according to Baker.

LGBTQ youth are disproportionately affected.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, there are free resources available right now.

You can call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Teens can also reach out to YouthLine, a free, confidential, teen-to-teen crisis and help line: oregonyouthline.org

Here are some other resources provided by the Oregon Health Authority:

Sources of Strength: Youth-led program to help promote healthy norms and coping skills to fellow peers in a school setting with a focus on hope, help, and strength. Contact: Liz Thorne, 503.593.2840, liz@matchstickpdx.com

ASIST: A two-day workshop designed for anyone ages 16+ to learn to provide skilled intervention and safety planning. Contact: Maria Pos, 503.399.7201, mpos@aocmhp.org

QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer): A 1.5 hour online or in-person training program for anyone ages 16+ that teaches three easy steps to identify signs someone is thinking about suicide and how to connect them to help. Available March 1st. Contact: Lines for Life, 503.244.5211, qpr@linesforlife.org

safeTALK: A half-day in-person training program that teaches anyone ages 15+ how to recognize and engage individuals who might be having thoughts of suicide and how to connect them with community resources. Contact: Maria Pos, 503.399.7201, mpos@aocmhp.org

Mental Health First Aid: A broad overview one-day training on recognizing the early signs of mental illness, mental health problems, and substance use. Contact: Maria Pos, 503.399.7201, mpos@aocmhp.org

Connect: An in-person, half-day postvention training teaching adult service providers best practices to respond in a coordinated way in the aftermath of a suicide. Contact: Annette Marcus, 503.399.7201, amarcus@aocmhp.org

Copyright 2020 KPTV-KPDX Broadcasting Corporation.  All rights reserved.

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(1) comment

Frederick Fukov

Perhaps if liberal teachers would stop brain washing kids, telling them what a terrible country this is, and they would stop spending so much time teaching gloom and doom about climate change, and how awful the world will be when they grow up, that might help.

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