Iowa schools focus on mental health after high suicide rate
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — In class writings, Cameron Carico said he wanted to “meet God.”
The teen, who had an upbeat personality, wrote that he often cried in his room. And though Cameron’s family knew of his depression, they had no idea how severe it was.
On Jan. 28, 2012, the 15-year-old Johnston High School freshman took his own life. The next day, another Johnston student did the same. There were a total of three suicides that year in the Des Moines suburb’s school district.
Brian Carico was principal at Johnston Middle School when his son killed himself, and he can’t help but feel that he and other school staff could have done more.
“I felt like we failed him in some way,” Carico, now associate principal at Ames High School, told the Des Moines Register . “Something was not right.
“I knew then and there I needed to do something.”
With suicides across Iowa at their highest levels in more than a decade, schools are trying to stem future deaths by stepping up training focused on identifying students at risk and getting them help.
Iowa’s suicide rate is growing faster than many states and exceeds the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
A year after Cameron’s funeral, Carico met Democratic Sen. Janet Petersen, of Des Moines, at Panera Bread in Johnston to discuss how the state could curb the rise in teen suicides.
The national suicide rate for youth ages 10 to 19 increased 56 percent between 2007 and 2016, according to the CDC.
From that discussion, Petersen drafted a bill to require teacher training on suicide prevention.
Gov. Kim Reynolds signed Senate File 2113 in March.
The law requires at least one hour of training annually for certified K-12 educators, starting in July 2019. The goal is to make educators into “gatekeepers” who can get students the help they need, Carico said.
“I don’t want any teachers to diagnose or give therapy. That’s not our role,” Carico said. “I do want them to be able to recognize what to do if a student is writing that they want to meet God.”
Last year, 476 Iowans — including 39 teens — killed themselves, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health.
Those numbers are the highest since at least 2000, said Pat McGovern, data manager and suicide prevention coordinator with the department.
“We see the numbers increasing both here in Iowa and nationally, while at the same time, we have more resources now than ever to try to reduce those numbers,” McGovern said.
The state offers free Youth Mental Health First Aid courses to school districts. About 12,000 Iowa residents, including educators and other community members, are certified “First Aiders,” according to the Iowa Department of Education.
Iowa’s Area Education Agencies, which partner with public and private schools to provide state-funded services such as special education, also have increased their efforts to address student mental health, said David VanHorn, an associate administrator at Green Hills, one of nine Area Education Agencies in the state.
The agencies recently launched online suicide “prevention and postvention” training that will serve as an option for teachers completing the new annual requirement.
The “awareness-level” course is a “step in the right direction,” said VanHorn, who helped develop the online module.
The Department of Education is still developing guidelines that will shape the new training, the agency said.
All Scavo High School staff recently became certified Youth Mental Health First Aiders after an eight-hour workshop led by Carico and his nephew Michael Cameron, Scavo’s school improvement leader.
The two facilitate and fund First Aiders training through the Cameron Carico Plus 10 Foundation, a nonprofit in Cameron’s honor. Together, they’ve trained hundreds of educators in identifying struggling students, listening, giving encouragement and finding support.
“When my father (died by) suicide in 1999, I knew we had to start reaching out to kids and being somebody they can connect with and have a relationship with,” Carico said. “Then, after Cameron died, I found out we actually have to be knowledgeable about the warning signs.”
Groups of Scavo teachers and administrators took turns giving presentations on bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, psychosis, schizophrenia and eating disorders.
They discussed the challenges of adolescence — puberty, social media, bullying — and how they can trigger mental illness. They shared how they reacted to past students’ behaviors and what they could have done differently.
Throughout learning the statistics — like that boys die by suicide more often, but girls attempt suicide more often — the educators asked follow-up questions.
The number of suicides in America? Nearly 45,000 last year, according to the CDC. That’s enough to fill Busch Stadium, said Carico, a St. Louis Cardinals fan.
“That always kind of puts it into focus for me,” he said.
Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com