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Recent teen suicides spark ask for more mental health resources at Chandler school district

In an email to families, the Chandler school district said schools are a part of the mental health solution, "and by working together we can all make a difference."

CHANDLER, Ariz. — As Arizona schools are settling into the start of a new year, a series of devastating losses are rocking the East Valley. Tuesday night, a vigil was held in Chandler for a former Perry High School student who reportedly took her own life over the weekend. This latest shocking death, comes after at least three other teens died by suicide in Chandler at the end of the last school year.

Wednesday evening, a group of concerned students, therapists and mental health advocates are planning to go to the Chandler School District Governing Board meeting. That’s where they’re set to share testimony with district leaders, asking for more help for young people struggling with mental health issues. This marks the second time the group is gathering, after emotional testimony over the same topic was brought before the governing board just two months ago.

On an early June night while many Valley families were enjoying their summer break, Chandler students stood in front of the Chandler Unified School District Governing Board, and gave district leaders an inside look at the mental health struggles students are facing.

“In the past few years I’ve struggled with mental health and watched my friends struggle with it," one student said to the board. "As many of you know, it’s so hard to watch someone you love go through something like this.”

One of the Chandler voices that addressed the board in support of the students was Chad Day.

“It’s so brave of them to come here and ask for this," Day told the governing board. "It’s a shame they have to come here and ask for this.”

Day said he lost his son Pierson to suicide, just weeks prior.

“I will be here to help you get what you guys need in your school systems," Day told the board. "Whether it be fundraising. Whatever it needs. No parent should ever have to go through this.”

Pierson’s death and at least two other teens who reportedly took their own lives in Chandler in May, brought students like Chandler High senior Riana Alexander together in an Arizona Students for Mental Health Group. Alexander knows the struggles mental health can bring, first-hand.

“I had to actually unenroll from Chandler High and I had to transfer online for the second semester of my junior year," Alexander said. "And then I got help from a mental hospital, Copper Springs in Gilbert, and then family and friends helped me get better as well."

Alexander said she’s doing better now and is back to school in person half the time. But her experience, also brought her in front of the CUSD governing board back in June, where she asked the district to step up mental health support that she didn’t feel she had enough of.

“Our organization, Arizona Students for Mental Health, is advocating for change," Alexander told the governing board. "We’re asking for a student action board.”

In an interview with 12News, Alexander said her group wants every junior high and high school in the Chandler school district to have student representatives meeting monthly with district leaders to talk about mental health needs within their schools.

12News reached out to the district to find out the status of this request. In an email sent to 12News and Chandler families, the district said in part, Chandler families will soon "see student roundtable discussions, student-led support groups at the secondary level, a community forum, and increased resources at school sites."

Alexander’s student group also asked for all students and staff to go through mental health first-aid training to recognize suicidal ideation signs.

The district told 12News Superintendent Frank Narducci was not available for an on-camera interview to follow up, but in an email to 12News said in part, last year, more than "800 staff and community members were trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid. More staff training is coming this school year."

In the same email, Chandler Unified added they’re working to implement Teen Mental Health First Aid for ages 15 and up and parent approval is required.

Prior to 12News learning of the serious concerns brought up at the June board meeting, we talked on camera with Chandler Unified's Director of Counseling and Social Services, Brenda Vargas.

“You know, it takes all of us to support our children," Vargas said. 

Vargas said the district has roughly 5.5 million dollars in funding for mental health resources. Part of that has been used to hire two new positions, a prevention coordinator with a background in social work and a director of safety.

“So we can make sure that as students are coming to school every day facing the number of challenges that they are, that they feel safe in our community," Vargas said.

Vargas said the district is providing more tools to families like the free ‘A Friend Asks’ App which gives tips and information on suicide warnings signs, there’s also the new 9-8-8- federal suicide hotline, local Teen Lifeline, and CUSD’s Speak up for Safety line.

“If someone is facing a challenge and or supporting a friend having a challenge, we know the way our students stay connected is globally through that cell phone that gives them access," Vargas said. "It’s quick, accessible.”

The district said there will be a study session Wednesday at 5pm in Chandler, where district leaders will go over many of these mental health support issues and more. And the Arizona Students for Mental Health Organization said they're planning to address the governing board again, like back in June.

While Chandler Unified takes action on youth mental health support, Phoenix Children’s treats patients across the Valley. The hospital said it’s seen a marked increase during the pandemic in families seeking behavioral health services for their children.

In 2020, the Arizona Department of Health Services reported 49 suicides in Arizona youth 17 and younger. That’s a 30 percent increase from 2019.

Nationwide, researchers said suicide is the third-leading cause of death among young people, and the second-leading cause among college students.

Dr. Carla Allan, the division chief of psychology at Phoenix Children’s, said mental health services are a priority for the hospital. They’re working to meet the increased need among pediatric patients through programs like their Bridge Clinic.

Dr. Allan also offered tips for families with questions or who are seeking help:

  1. Focus on your child or teen’s actions, emotions and thoughts to watch for warnings signs of suicide.
  2. Watch for big changes in what your child is doing academically, after school and socially.
  3. Pay attention to consistent emotional swings and significant changes to their emotional health.
  4. Listen for statements that show a change in thinking, such as believing the world would be better off without them.
  5. Adults can support children with mental health concerns by being compassionate and listening with their whole bodies.
  6. Having brief but frequent conversations surrounding mental health and consulting a care team if necessary.

Dr. Allan said if you’re concerned about your child, ask directly. She said it doesn’t plant the idea, but it can save a life. And when kids are at risk Phoenix Children's recommended parents calling 911 or taking them to the nearest emergency room. 

Parents can also call Teen Lifeline across Arizona.

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