Column: Newport-Mesa is taking the lead on working to prevent teen suicides

Children committing suicide is the last thing any of us wants to think about.

But we must, for what has been called a silent epidemic is real. Every day, on average, thousands of young people try to kill themselves.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among 10-to-24-year-olds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza and chronic lung disease combined.

There are indications that the problem is getting worse. The number of children aged 5 to 17 who were admitted to children’s hospitals because of thoughts of suicide or self-harm more than doubled between 2008 and 2015, according to research presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies meeting in San Francisco in May.

Every year in Orange County alone, about 700 youth aged 10 to 19 years old require medical treatment because of self-inflicted injuries. It’s estimated that 2% die from the injuries.

Looking away and doing nothing is not an option.

With that in mind, state lawmakers have taken a stance. Last year, legislators passed, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law, Assembly Bill 2246, authored by Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach). The new law makes California the first state to require school districts to implement suicide-prevention policies for grades 7-12.

“As a classroom teacher, I know from experience that educators often serve as the first line of defense when a student is suffering from depression or suicidal thoughts,” O’Donnell said after the bill’s passage.

I’m glad to report that Newport-Mesa Unified School District is treating this mandate as seriously as it should. It has taken decisive steps to implement an ambitious and comprehensive suicide-prevention program, just as it also aggressively tackled substance-abuse issues with its previously launched Navig8 program.

I sat down recently with Phil D’Agostino, NMUSD’s director of student and community services, and Angela Castellanos, coordinator of mental health and outreach services, who are leading the suicide-prevention efforts.

Not only are D’Agostino and Castellanos fully on board with the new law’s requirements, but they appear equal parts enthusiastic and relieved that this troubling issue is now receiving the attention and support that it warrants.

As D’Agostino said, “We’ve embraced the legislation.”

When the bill was passed, NMUSD decided to partner with the Orange County Department of Education and formed a task force to craft the district’s policy, which it is rolling out in stages over the next two years. The focus will be on early intervention and referral.

So far, all middle school and high school employees have completed an online training module that covers such topics as how to recognize risk factors and how to get students the help they need.

For example, teachers and staff are taught to be more aware of the sometimes-subtle changes in behavior and demeanor that might indicate a student is depressed or self-harming. They are then given clear guidance on how to proceed, including notifying the appropriate personnel, such as a counselor or psychologist, to perform an assessment and provide services to the student.

By December, NMUSD will have 70 employees who will have undergone an intensive three-day training program to become crisis responders prepared to step in when emergencies arise. And even though the new law doesn’t require an educational component for parents, the district is planning to hold town hall-style meetings –– one for each high school zone –– to inform parents about warning signs for suicide and self-harming behaviors, and how to get help should they become concerned.

When assessing at-risk students, however, the district must tread carefully when dealing with parents. Sometimes parents are in denial about their children’s problems. In some situations the parents themselves are part of the problem, and district personnel might find that students have become depressed or self-harming after suffering abuse at home.

“Some parents work against us in getting kids help,” D’Agostino said. “It’s a complicated dance we undertake.”

So it’s important to also teach the kids about suicide awareness. The district plans to use an educational program for students called the Signs of Suicide (SOS), which was designed by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center specifically for grades 7-12.

Next spring, the district will also begin implementing a suicide-prevention strategy for elementary schools. As shocking as it might seem to target kids so young, it’s necessary.

Just last spring, in one month alone, there were five or six incidents involving self-harming at the elementary level, D’Agostino said.

Once an at-risk student is identified and assessed, the district’s involvement will continue in what is referred to as the “postvention” stage. This could include “a slew of options,” Castellanos said, including counseling, a modified class schedule and academic assistance. A team will be assigned to provide ongoing support to the student.

“It’s a big undertaking,” said D’Agostino.

Indeed it is. But we should all be grateful that NMUSD has chosen to go beyond merely following the letter of the law and is aggressively pursuing a well-thought-out strategy that could ultimately save lives. On this issue, the district deserves our unqualified support.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.