TWIN FALLS — Nearly 1-in-4 Idaho high school students have seriously considered attempting suicide — the highest rate in 10 years.
In Twin Falls, high schools use the data to identify trends and decide how to best help students. Statewide, it helps inform policy and program decisions.
“This data is critical as we focus on the factors that disrupt academic achievement,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra said in a statement.
Students across Idaho take the survey, conducted by the Idaho State Department of Education, during odd-numbered years.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed the survey. Six categories are covered: behaviors that contribute to injury, tobacco use, alcohol and drug use, sexual behaviors, and diet and physical activity.
School officials take the results with “a grain of salt,” Twin Falls School District spokeswoman Eva Craner said. Some high schoolers may not take the survey seriously or be completely honest with their responses.
In total, 1,818 students at 53 public high schools completed the survey.
There aren’t specific Magic Valley results, though. That’s because participants aren’t tracked by school, school district or region, said Kristin Rodine, spokeswoman for the Idaho State Department of Education.
The education department has been working with schools to address behaviors reported in the survey, it said in its statement. That includes public service announcements and information available online about anti-bullying resources.
The department is also partnering with community and state groups for suicide prevention efforts.
Here are five of the key topics addressed in the survey:
Of the high schoolers surveyed, 22 percent said they seriously considered suicide within the past year. That’s the highest rate in a decade.
Whenever a Twin Falls school is told of a student who’s possibly contemplating suicide, “we take that very seriously,” said Krystal Koelling, student assistant specialist for Twin Falls and Canyon Ridge high schools.
Employees talk with the student, do a risk assessment and contact their parents — part of school district protocol to make sure a student is safe.
Depending on the severity, parents may be required to take their child to the emergency room to be assessed by a medical professional and to follow those recommendations so the student doesn’t have the opportunity or means to follow through with suicidal thoughts, Koelling said.
“We want students to be healthy and safe here at school,” she said.
School district officials would like to look into underlying factors behind the increase in the percentage of students who’ve considered suicide, Craner said.
She said she wonders if since suicide prevention is more widely discussed, if more students are comfortable making a disclosure in the survey.
“We’re seeing so many kids who are reaching out and are saying ‘I need help,’” said Donna Stalley, a licensed clinical professional counselor and president of Suicide Prevention Action Network of Idaho‘s local chapter.
She said she thinks people — including at schools, medical professionals and law enforcement officers — are becoming more educated about suicide prevention and warning signs.
But still, “I think there’s a fear that if we bring up suicide, will it glamorize it in any way?”
SPAN of Idaho wants to reach out to children at risk, Stalley said, and doesn’t want suicide to be something they think is normal or natural.
“Fortunately, numbers for completed suicides for teenagers is low,” she said, but there have been some recent ones in outlying areas of the Magic Valley.
The biggest increase she’s noticing is among those 50 and older, and U.S. armed forces veterans.
Another challenge: Websites that detail how to commit suicide, and some critics say a popular recent Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why,” romanticizes suicide.
“13 Reasons Why” is based on a bestselling young adult novel, published in 2007, that follows a high school girl who kills herself after creating a series of tapes for her classmates to play after her death. She gave the tapes to people who influenced her decision.
Following the airing of “13 Reasons Why,” the number of calls to suicide prevention hotlines increased significantly, Stalley said.
She encourages community members who see someone with signs and symptoms of being suicidal to talk with them and offer them help — and to talk with their parent or school counselor if they’re a child.
One-in-four students surveyed reporting being bullied at school and 20 percent electronically.
“Unfortunately, with cellphones, bullying has been made a little easier,” Koelling said, adding school employees try to teach students responsibility and how to use social media in appropriate ways.
The survey’s findings on bullying are reflective of what’s happening in Twin Falls, Craner said. “It can be hard to enforce rules about harassment when it’s hard to get proof of what transpires electronically.”
Koelling said: “Parents need to police that with their children.”
Drugs, alcohol and smoking
Only 16 percent of students surveyed said they’d been in a vehicle with someone who’d been drinking alcohol. That’s a big drop from 30 percent in 2007.
“That means we’re doing a little bit better job educating kids,” Koelling said.
There are extensive programs — such as the nationwide Every 15 Minutes — to educate students about the dangers of drunken driving, Craner said, adding that can have a profound impact on students.
But 47 percent of survey respondents said they sent text or email messages while driving a vehicle during the previous 30 days.
As for smoking, the percentage of students who’ve tried it dropped 20 percent over the last decade, to 28 percent this year.
There are many public service announcements to address teen smoking, Craner said, as well as Red Ribbon Week. “I think all of that work over the course of a decade has shown results.”
A trusted adult
About 72 percent of students reported having at least one teacher or adult at school they feel comfortable talking with if a problem arises.
That’s huge, Koelling said. “We work really hard to develop relationships with staff and students to make sure it’s a trusting environment. As relationships develop, that helps address other issues that come up in the survey.”
Post-high school plans
Of those surveyed, 78 percent of students said they’d “probably” or “definitely” complete a program beyond high school, such as college, vocational training or enlisting in the U.S. Armed Forces.