A survey of Waupaca High School students found that 16.2 percent of them had seriously considered suicide over the past 12 months.
Five percent of the students said they had attempted suicide, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted in October 2012.
The numbers are slightly higher among middle school students.
“They are consistent with our day-to-day experience,” said Jeff Dolski, a Waupaca High School guidance counselor, regarding the results of the survey. “We average one issue a week where we’re assessing students who potentially could harm themselves.”
Dolski said the most serious problems often emerge on Mondays, when students return to school after the weekends.
Cruel comments may have been posted about them on Facebook, then transmitted to dozens of friends through a social network. A date ends badly.Parents divorce.
Over the previous 12 months, 22.9 percent of Waupaca High School students felt “so sad or depressed almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that they stopped doing some usual activities,” according to the survey.
“High school is a microcosm of real life. The same things that affect adults, affect our students,” said Rob Becker, co-principal of Waupaca High School.
Becker noted that economic uncertainty, dysfunctional family dynamics, alcohol and drug abuse can cause seemingly insurmountable difficulties in a student’s personal life.
“Peer and friendship issues can also have a huge impact on how kids feel about themselves,” Becker said.
Sometimes, friends and teachers recognize the signs of severe depression and take steps to reach out to that student.
“In most situations, it comes as a complete surprise,” Dolski said.
Some students act out in a violent manner.
Dolski estimated that staff have been required to take immediate action in about half a dozen cases over the past year. A team, which usually includes Dolski, the school nurse and the police liaison officer will meet with the student.
If the student is deemed to be at immediate risk, the police liaison officer will determine whether a 72-hour hold in a mental health facility is necessary.
“We analyze the student’s plan to commit suicide. Have they been thinking about suicide? Do they have a weapon or other means of killing themselves?” Dolski said.
Dolski described a situation where a student called him regarding a text she had received from a friend. The text indicated the student was considering suicide.
“I kept her on the phone while she kept her friend online. My colleague contacted her parents,” Dolski said. “I advised her what to say to her friend until the parents arrived.”
Dolski said one of the tools the schools use to help prevent suicide among students includes assessments taken during health class.
The assessments help staff identify individual students with mental health issues, unlike the surveys, which are anonymous.
The assessments also help open up a conversation with students about how to recognize the warning signs of suicide and respond.
Dolski said understanding that depression is a disease and not something a student can simply shake off is an important step toward recognizing a potential suicide victim.
“Telling someone who is suffering from depression to pull themselves up by the bootstraps is like telling someone with diabetes to cure themselves,” Dolski said. “If kids can look at it as a health issue that can be resolved, they are more likely to be proactive.”
He said students may recognize mental health problems in their friends before the parents do, because some students are more open with their friends than with their parents.
Sue Woodliff, Waupaca’s school nurse, said students need to “break the code of silence.” If they suspect a friend is suffering from depression or considering suicide, they should begin asking questions.
“If you suspect that a friend may commit suicide, don’t be afraid to call a parent. Don’t be silent,” Woodliff said. “If you are really worried, do not leave them alone. Call someone who can help or dial 911.”
Woodliff said parents should watch for drastic changes in their children’s behavior, changes in their sleeping patterns, if they are spending more time alone or their grades are dropping.
“Some kids are very good at hiding the way they feel,” Woodliff said. “Their changes in behavior may be part of normal adolescent adjustment. But sometimes, the changes mean something serious is going on. It’s best to err on the side of caution and discuss these changes with your child.”
“Spend time with your children,” Becker said. “Families who have a meal together are spending time, face-to-face, with their children.”
Becker noted that the percentage of Waupaca students suffering from severe depression is lower than either the state or national average.
The same risk behavior survey, which was developed by the Centers for Disease Control, shows that 5.3 percent of all Waupaca students surveyed have attempted suicide, 6.7 percent of Wisconsin students and 7.8 percent of U.S. students have attempted suicide.
“We’re all in this together,” Dolski said. “Communities need to build lines of communications with their youth.”