With the community still reeling from the suicides of two current and four former high school students in the past year, the Newberg School District has been immersed in efforts to help students grieve and to better support those struggling with depression and other mental health issues.
In many ways, the issue was still raw for students, staff and parents at Newberg High School and the Catalyst alternative program, so school leaders were especially alarmed to receive reports that as many as six local teens may have attempted suicide in a period of two weeks.
Already quite familiar with advice of mental health and suicide prevention specialists to openly address what has traditionally been a taboo topic with honest discussion, district leaders felt compelled to inform parents of the situation.
On April 24, the principals of Newberg High School, as well as Chehalem Valley and Mountain View middle schools, sent an email to parents urging them to engage in conversation on the difficult topic with their children.
In addition to relating that the district had lost a total of three students — two former and one current — during this school year, the principals noted that the Netflix series "13 Reasons Why" was adding to the trying climate many students have found themselves in.
The show depicts a high school student who commits suicide and has been a topic of national debate, drawing praise for shining a spotlight on some of the suicide-related problems that many teens face yet hesitate to talk about openly, including rape, bullying, assault and harassment.
Meanwhile, criticism of the show from school officials and mental health professionals has been fierce, with many positing generally that it glorifies suicide. In particular, the show's choice to include graphic depictions of violence, including self-harm and suicide itself, runs contrary to guidelines established by suicide prevention organizations, including the "Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide" developed by a group of organizations, governmental bodies and hospitals, including the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
"Described as a cautionary tale, this intense and graphic program may be disturbing for many students," NHS principal Kyle Laier wrote in his email to parents. "We want you to be aware of the serious nature of this program out of concern for student's well-being. The series is being actively discussed on social media and may provide an opportunity to engage in dialogue with your student."
Following up on reports the district received about suicide attempts, which were characterized in the email as unsubstantiated, school staff confirmed that some attempts did occur but did not disclose a specific number, citing family and student privacy.
Laier also clarified some of the information about local suicides included in his letter, explaining that two of the three youths who committed suicide during the current school year were not active students, including one who graduated several years ago. Laier and NHS psychologist Anthony Buckner stressed that whether a student has graduated or isn't currently enrolled doesn't prevent their suicide from affecting students and teachers or contributing to the broader community and climate at the school.
Following a student suicide over Thanksgiving break, the district connected with medical providers, including Providence and Yamhill County Mental Health, and numerous organizations in the community, including the city of Newberg and the Chehalem Park and Recreation District provide resources to students over winter break and to begin a dialogue about implementing long-term strategies and systems to better address teen mental health.
Ongoing efforts have also included QPR (Question, Persuade and Refer) response training for staff, as well as several senior projects centered on teen mental health or suicide prevention.
Two staff members from the Behavioral Health Clinic at Providence Newberg Medical Group, psychologist Jeri Turgesen and clinic manager Elise Yarnell, reached out to offer immediate support to the high school at the school board's meeting April 25.
The two organizations are now partnering to implement both short and long-term solutions. On the front end, the clinic is working to create an expedited path for school counselors to refer students, staff and family members to the clinic for immediate assistance. Yarnell also said plans are in the works to arrange for a Providence staff member to be on site at NHS for a few of hours every school day.
Moving forward, Providence staff are working on several initiatives centered on student support, which includes arranging additional training for school staff and providing a nationally recognized screening questionnaire.
"The goal is by the end of May to have determined a long-term approach with different partners in the community around mental health, including the county and different practices in town," Yarnell said.