A recent report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed suicide rates in teens 10-14 have tripled in the past decade.

“Deaths due to suicide and homicide, often referred to collectively as violent deaths, have consistently been a major cause of premature death to persons aged 10–24 in the United States,” the report said. “In 2017, suicide was the second leading cause of death for persons aged 10–14, 15–19, and 20–24, and homicide ranked third for persons aged 15–19 and 20–24 and fifth for persons aged 10–14.”

The East Texas Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse’s 2019 Regional Needs Assessment states that Angelina County’s suicide rate per 100,000 population is 13.2 — higher than the Texas rate of 11.2 but lower than the Region 5 rate of 14.4. It’s the third lowest of the 15 counties in Region 5.

“I think we’re probably going to follow fairly closely to what you’re seeing nationally as far as increases,” said Shannon Story, a licensed professional counselor at Burke. “There’s been an increase, unfortunately, regardless of age group, for suicidality.”

“Luckily, we haven’t dealt with an increase in true suicide so far, but we have dealt with ideations, and we have services to deal with that,” said Julie McManus, Lufkin ISD’s director of counseling.

Story said that statistics have a tendency to rise with the population. In 2007, the U.S. population was around 301,200,000, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Today, the population in the U.S. is somewhere around 330,115,400.

However, the study found that suicide rates from 2000 to 2007 decreased in teenagers 10-14. Story said this might have to do with 9/11 in 2001. When a tragedy strikes, communities tend to band together and people feel less isolated, she said.

“That works regionally, too,” Story said. “When a county crisis happens like a flood, you will see those statistics decrease in those counties, too, because communities come together, rally together, so there’s that support and care.”

In addition, bullying has changed over the years, and Story believes this might have to do with rising rates in younger teens.

“I might have been bullied at school, but I got to go home and I got to forget about it,” Story said. “Or I got to leave and go off to college and no one remembered. Now it’s all internet based and it’s out there and it’s out there forever. It’s harder to get away from.”

Burke provides a service called Mental Health First Aid to businesses, organizations and individuals who work with the public. There is a training designed for adults and a training designed for youth.

Members of Perritte Memorial United Methodist Church in Nacogdoches requested to be trained in Mental Health First Aid because they wanted to better serve their community.

“We’ve started having a Thursday night praise and healing service here; it’s very nontraditional,” member Mike Gandy said. “What we’ve discovered is, when we’re in this building and the lights are on Thursday nights, we have folks come in off the street. Frequently, they demonstrate that they have needs.”

The church members are not classically trained in how to assess mental illness or substance abuse or monetary/physical need. In one instance, the members did not know how to handle one woman and ended up calling the police.

“I felt a need for us, as a church, to get some training because there’s a tendency, when you don’t recognize this and you don’t know what to do, you immediately get out lanterns and pitchforks and somebody call the cops,” Gandy said.

While there are situations that do call for emergency action, Gandy said there are also times when the church members could respond in a different way, and he wanted the training to teach them the difference.

“What we’re hoping to do here is to learn how to not push the panic button every time somebody stops by here who doesn’t look like us,” he said. “In the same way you apply more common first aid, this works the same way. You interpret the symptoms, you apply some first aid, but at some point, you back off and say, ‘I’ve done what I can do.’”

The Saturday training covered things like the ABC’s of symptoms of anxiety and depression, nonjudgmental listening, giving reassurance and information, what isn’t supportive and more.

Peer support specialist Jeff Hedrick led the training. He has been the veterans coordinator at Burke for several years now.

“Don’t think that everything you’re going to do is the cure-all,” Hedrick told the trainees. “But if you assist and you try, that’s a major thing.”

Hedrick is also a pastor, and he said he has noticed many connections in his two professions and has learned a lot through being a part of Burke.

“Growing up, we didn’t understand there were mental health issues,” Hedrick said. “We just thought people were lazy or something was wrong. I’m getting a better understanding of that.”

Lufkin ISD teachers and staff are trained in Mental Health First Aid.

Sheila Adams, executive director of communications and public relations, said the district implements Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports on each campus, and all staff have been trained on trauma-informed practices and how to work with students who have experienced trauma.

“Restorative circles and practices are utilized on each campus,” Adams said. “On our elementary and primary campuses, our staff use the Connected and Respected curriculum to provide social/emotional learning activities in the classroom each day. Our counselors also provide small group and individual counseling.”

The district takes all mention of suicide or student suicide attempts seriously, but they haven’t seen an increase in suicide attempts, Adams said.

If a student mentions suicide or attempts suicide, staff immediately contacts the campus counselor and McManus. The counselor will work with the student, contact the parent and help the parent contact Burke or another mental health provider.

This is the basic policy that every campus builds off of, McManus said. How the staff and administration will respond is also influenced by whether or not the student is in imminent danger.

One of the things that Burke will do if called is come to the school. That takes away the barrier of time or transportation from families who might not be able to rely on Burke without it, McManus said.

“We try to remove every barrier that might prevent students from receiving help,” she said.

There are many subsets of risk factors that play a part in this issue, like employment, support, connection and more, Story said.

“Honestly, the biggest one across the board that has the biggest effect on all things we do is trauma,” Story said. “When you’re looking at risk factors, it is one of the most prominent risk factors in regard to substance, suicide and health in general.”

Income is also a factor, and rural communities with higher populations of poor citizens have risk factors that are different than urban populations, Story said.

“Being rural, one of the challenges we face is being able to get services to individuals. Urban populations tend to have a lot of public transportation, and it makes it easier sometimes for people to get to resources,” she said. “In light of that, Burke is doing a lot to meet that need because it’s something that Burke, and even the state, is seeing as an issue for us.”

Burke is able to bring services to the home for many individuals, and there is funding for many low-income families, especially for youth, Story said.

“Youth are very fortunate in the fact that there’s a lot of funding,” she said.

Burke offers a wide variety of different services for youth, Story said. The System of Care program monitors youth who are at higher risk of mental health issues, suicide, suicidality and incarceration.

The Yes Waiver Program was created to fill a hole in funding for middle class families. The state noticed that it and organizations like Burke were doing a good job at providing services to youth eligible for Medicare/Medicaid, but there was a group of kids who fell in the middle who couldn’t afford private pay but made too much to be eligible for services.

Wrap Around is a program of intensive services for youth. Story said it builds a group for them and brings in family, CPS workers, probation officers, therapists, doctors and whoever is working with the youth.

Through that program, Burke provides a Youth Peer Provider who can “help the youth not be afraid to have a voice and be more active in the discussion for services.”

This youth has at some point in their life had treatment for mental health services and is now stable and in recovery, Story said.

Currently, the center employs 19-year-old Colton Wicker. He said he accepted the position because he thought it would be a good opportunity to advocate for youth who haven’t been heard.

“I can relate to them to a certain extent,” he said. “We all go through things, so I don’t expect a huge personal connection. But I want to let them know that they are not alone.”

Wicker will sit with the students during the Wrap meetings so they don’t feel intimidated about speaking with a bunch of adults.

“A lot of times their voices become lost in the process, and it just becomes about the system rather than the client,” he said.

The biggest piece of his job is to let them know that recovery is possible. Wicker said he has dealt with feelings of depression, anxiety and suicide. Though he hasn’t completely shed these feelings, he found a process to do what he needed to do to get better, he said.

“Close friends, family have all been good support,” he said. “Going out and doing stuff, almost forcing yourself to do what you don’t want to do, and hopefully get out of the funk that you’re in. I saw a therapist and stuff like that. The rest was mostly close friends and family.”

Changing the way he thought took practice, he said. Instead of thinking a negative thought, he would train himself to think a positive one. Instead of demotivating himself, he would motivate himself, saying, “I can do this.”

Getting to this point took admitting to himself that he needed help. Then he reached out to family and eventually found therapy, he said.

“Take a step back and breathe and ask yourself if you’re OK,” he said. “If anyone else asks, you might not even want to tell them, but if you can tell yourself that you’re not OK, that’s the first and biggest and hardest step you can take.”

Several years ago, Texas mandated that every school district provide mental health training, McManus said. That is when Lufkin ISD started using Mental Health First Aid.

More often than not, the teachers are the ones who catch suicidal ideations in students, and she said they had positive reactions when the training was put into place.

“Teachers are really the front line,” McManus said. “A lot of teachers will see it in their writing — that something is not right.”

McManus said the teachers and staff are trained to specifically ask if students have a (suicide) plan.

“It’s something we have to know to figure out where they are and how to help them,” she said. “We don’t want to skirt around the issue.”

When they know if they have a plan, they can ask if they have the means to do so, and if they do, they can encourage parents to remove those means.

“People shy away from asking these questions, but you don’t know what you don’t know,” McManus said. “We don’t want to ask these questions, but we need to for (the kids).”

McManus encouraged parents to have open communication with their kids because communication is key to knowing what a child is feeling and why they’re feeling that way.

She also encouraged the community to reach out to campus counselors if they notice something in a student because if they can reach a student before he or she becomes a statistic, they want to, she said.

Grace Juarez can be reached at grace.juarez@lufkindailynews.com.

Grace Juarez can be reached at grace.juarez@lufkindailynews.com.

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