Local officials fret uptick in teen suicide, bullying

West York Area School District pupil services team shows off their bracelets for the 2019 NAMI Mental Health Awareness Walk at West York Area Middle School Saturday, Oct. 12.

Teen suicides have risen sharply over the past decade, says a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released Thursday. And students in York County are among the at-risk population, according to local officials and state data.

"I think social media is a huge factor," said Dover Area Superintendent Tracy Krum.

Information circulates more easily to other students, so issues such as bullying can snowball, added district spokesman Brad Perkins.

"We have adults that have issues with social media, and handling social media, at age 50," he said, and 13-year-olds don't have the coping skills to deal with that.  

The CDC survey covered 10- to 24-year-olds and broke down that population into three groups: ages 10 to 14, 15 to 19 and 20 to 24.

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Key findings from the report, released Thursday, Oct. 24, used data gathered from the National Center for Health Statistics’ cause-of-death mortality files via the Vital Statistics Cooperative Program.

In 2017, suicide was the second leading cause of death for all studied age groups. The rate among 10- to 24-year-olds increased 56% from 2007 to 2017. Data showed the pace of the increase was greater on average from 2013 to 2017.

"We've seen a substantial increase in the last several years," said South Eastern school board President James Roberts, in regards to students needing extra mental health-related supports and medications on a daily basis. 

These trends reflect countywide data through 2017, released through the Pennsylvania Youth Survey, also known as PAYS, which is conducted by the state every two years, covering students from sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades.

York County mental health issues exceeded the state average overall — a trend that remained consistent for specific suicide-related survey questions.

For example, 30.3% of the county's students surveyed indicated experiencing bullying in the past 12 months of 2017, compared to 28.2% of students statewide. And 18.2% of students had seriously considered attempting suicide, compared to the statewide average of 16.5%.

Krum said its PAYS survey showed that mental health statistics, including having thoughts of suicide, for its district were also above state average.

Since 2017, Dover officials have taken proactive measures including adding two social workers, school-day counseling, responsive classrooms in which students learn social emotional skills and trauma-informed classrooms.

The CDC reported that the suicide rate for ages 10 to 14 nearly tripled from 2007 to 2017.

For 15- to 19-year-olds, the suicide rate increased 76% in those years, with a greater increase on average — 10% compared with 3% — from 2014 to 2017.

Nationally, awareness of mental health and its effects on teens is on the rise, as more school districts prioritize safety and make connections between mental health and mass shootings such as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018.

Supporters gather outside the York County Human Services building before the Walk To Raise Awareness About Mental Health in York City Monday, May 6, 2019. The York County System of Care in collaboration with York County Human Services sponsored the walk during Mental Health Awareness Month. Area business and organizations will be displaying green lighting through May 12th to show support. Bill Kalina photo

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Attention to bullying and behavioral concerns is especially relevant locally, in districts such as Dover and West York Area.

West York has had numerous reports of bullying in previous years — some bad enough for students to leave school. The district has made concentrated efforts in the past two years to address those issues, including a soft start for students to ease them into the school day and a rollout of behavioral programming.

"In today’s world, a lot of our kids are coming to us with stressors in their environment," West York Area school board member Lynn Kohler has said, noting that the district initiated a lot of changes to help students adjust and work toward preventing bullying.

Roberts said South Eastern has had an influx of students coming in with mental health concerns and that teachers are also bringing backgrounds that make them sensitive to trauma. 

"I don't know how we're all going to get a handle on it other than the trainings we need to do to make others aware of these types of situations," he said.