Santa Barbara Works to Prevent Teen Suicides in the Pandemic
With Schools Closed, Teachers and Therapists Find Ways to Connect with Students
Delaney Smith | Published May 27, 2020
When Mari Hernandez woke up on May 15, 2018, she immediately knew her son was gone. Andrew, the second youngest of her four children, had taken his own life. Known as the “Big Friendly Giant” by his friends, Andrew was just weeks away from graduating Santa Barbara High School.
He had everything to live for. He was surrounded by family and friends who loved him, and he had dreams for his future. Anyone who knew Andrew pinned him as the “old soul” type who was upbeat and kind. Mari, along with everyone else in her son’s life, was floored at Andrew’s decision to drown himself off of Stearns Wharf.
But oftentimes, those who take their own lives fit that very description — happy, at least outwardly. Andrew’s suicide was one in a string of teen suicides in Santa Barbara County in recent years. Suicides and suicide attempts in the county peaked in 2016, when 62 of the attempts were by middle and high schoolers. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers in the United States.
Frann Wageneck, the assistant superintendent of Student Services at the Santa Barbara Unified School District, set out to conquer the silent beast. Shedding the stigma around depression by integrating social-emotional learning into schools became her mission. The number of teen suicide attempts began to drop once the district rolled out the Signs of Suicide (SOS) Program in 2018, a curriculum Wageneck implemented for middle and high schoolers that focuses on suicide awareness and skills to deal with depression and recognize the signs in others.
But now, as the coronavirus pandemic hit Santa Barbara, suicide rates have begun to rise again. The county’s Department of Behavioral Wellness confirmed that there has been an overall increase in suicides countywide since the month of April, and Cottage Hospital confirmed that there has also been an increase in teens admitted for suicide attempts since the shelter-in-place order went into effect.
When all county schools closed in March amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the eyes and ears of teachers and counselors were replaced by webcams in Zoom meetings. Students who already felt isolated may have had those feelings intensified. Others might be absorbing their parents’ pandemic-fueled financial strains, particularly when 58 percent of district families are already socioeconomically disadvantaged.
But Wageneck is determined. Social-emotional learning cannot fall on the wayside now. In fact, she believes it is more important than academia while schools remain closed.
“We are still here doing the same methods, but things are modified for this pandemic world,” Wageneck said. “We have a campaign to remind students, parents, and teachers about the signs of depression and what to do. We are creating videos to send out to schools and families.
Students are also continuing to see their therapists and counselors that they would normally meet with at school via Telehealth, and the district is continuing to give additional referrals.
“Counselors and therapists are really on the front lines,” Wageneck continued. “In grades 7-12, we had almost 900 student referrals for counseling and therapy this year.”
The Front Line
Susie Stone has been a counselor in the Santa Barbara Unified School District for a decade, and she has worked in the field for more than 20 years. Now a counselor at Dos Pueblos High School, she said kids are growing up in a “different age” and need additional support to learn how to navigate their difficult emotions.
“We’ve had a few students who have had attempts at Dos Pueblos,” Stone said. “Man, I thought the month of February was bad when we had some incredibly painful losses. With the death of the Corrals [a Goleta couple who worked for the district and were both killed in a hit-and-run accident], and Trevor Katz [16-year-old student], we couldn’t imagine it would get worse. Then the schools closed down.”
Stone said that teachers are taking “soft attendances” to see which students are not checking in, so counselors can reach out to make sure the student isn’t skipping out for mental-health reasons. She added that the controversial push by district counselors for pass/no pass grading during the pandemic is to take the academic pressure off students.
“Teenagers are in a funky place where they are coming up on the legal age of 18 but they are still very dependent on their parents,” Stone said. “Now they have the added ‘I know my parents are struggling, but I don’t have the power to do something to help.’ People say high schoolers are just kids, but they are very thoughtful and … are sensitive to the stresses.”
The counselors do not work with the students alone, though. Part of their role is also to equip parents with the tools to help the child, and also to help them deal with their own stress. Edith Cortes, a counselor at Santa Barbara High School, pointed out that culture and lifestyle can have a tight grip on families struggling with the stigma around mental health.
“How can we reach families who don’t believe in mental health?” Cortes asked. “I am Latino, and mental health was never discussed with my family, and many of the Latino kids that I see are the same.
“I tell these parents that stress is real; it can lead to depression. Those families that work two jobs and wait in line at the Foodbank for hours need to be reached.”
Cortes said that since her meetings with students have moved virtual, the first question she asks every teen is what they’re doing for self-care. A lot of students live in multi-family situations with upward of 15 people in one home, she explained. School was an escape for many students, so taking care of themselves is even more critical when they are stuck without their own space.
Like Stone, Cortes has been checking that every student who doesn’t show up to Zoom classes is accounted for. “If we can’t get ahold of the parents, then we track down the student on Instagram, social media, anything,” Cortes said. “It’s not even about academics; we are just making sure they are okay. It’s a huge community effort, and it’s a labor of love. We feel blessed to support families through difficult times.”
The Ripple Effect
Deaths like Andrew Hernandez’s can wreak emotional havoc on communities, even for those who didn’t know him personally. But they can also be the catalyst for a much-needed wakeup call.
“I checked out when all the suicides happened,” said a recent Santa Barbara High School graduate who attended the school at the time of Andrew’s and other students’ suicides and who asked to remain anonymous.
“It seemed like every year, it was someone new,” the student said. “I remember counting down the days to graduation, making sure all my friends were all alive. My friends and I decided we were in this together. It made me watch my friends differently.
“All of the deaths made us come together as a class,” the student said. “These are the people who I’ve known since I was 5. The first few guys who died were my brother’s friends. The closer I got to it, the more I struggled with it. I’m still working on how to be there for others but still separate myself from taking on the sadness.”
She said that the campus dialogue that opened up as a result of the tragedies made her more comfortable talking about her own emotions and being realistic about when she needs to take care of herself before she can take care of others.
Because of her experiences with suicide, she said she hopes to work as either a therapist or a trusted high school teacher, so that future students will be able to lean on her for support if they are struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide.
Mari, a licensed clinical social worker, holds an annual remembrance ceremony for Andrew each year, where she speaks candidly about his death. One girl from a well-to-do family told Mari she was planning to walk in front of a car but changed her mind after attending the ceremony where she realized how much pain Andrew’s death had caused. In January, Mari began mentoring teens struggling in silence like Andrew, including this young teen as part of her new nonprofit, the Vida Center.
“This is my life mission from now on,” Mari said. “How do we heal these inner wounds? How? Vida Center teaches kids mental resiliency, self-esteem, and how to discipline their mind. It gives them the tools and techniques to handle when they are feeling sad or when they lose someone.”
She said that while she is grateful to the district for implementing suicide awareness campaigns and the SOS curriculum, she doesn’t feel the responsibility should fall entirely on the shoulders of schools. Her hope is that families and nonprofits like hers can take more of a role in stopping teen suicide.
“Instead of being sad about people who are gone from the past, my best coping skill is to focus on giving love to the people who are around me right now,” the anonymous student said. “High school taught me that no one is alone. I have also struggled with depression, and it’s common; most people have suffered from it. I want people to know there is someone out there who loves you and you’re not alone. Your life means more than you know to other people.”
No Child Slips Through The COVID Cracks
The district contracts with multiple organizations to integrate social-emotional learning into classrooms. More than three months into remote education, these organizations are connecting with students and families in unique ways to ensure that mental-health needs are met, particularly at a time when student suicide attempts are on the rise.
“When you’re on a school campus, there are quite a few adults keeping in touch with these students every day,” said Carol Morgan with the Family Service Agency, which contracts with the district to provide therapy services in all secondary schools. “Coaches, teachers, counselors — they are pretty perceptive and notice changes in behavior.”
‘All of the deaths made us come together as a class… The closer I got to it, the more I struggled with it. I’m still working on how to be there for others but still separate myself from taking on the sadness.’
— Anonymous Student
Though having a safety net of trusted adults watching students every day has changed because of the pandemic forcing school closures, the Family Service Agency is still providing therapy via Telehealth to students.
“Many parents are dealing with their own problems right now,” Morgan said. “They are out of tune with their teens because they are dealing with their own stressors. They can’t see their teenagers struggling and miss the signs that school adults see. … We look for the same kinds of signs now, but because we aren’t in the same room, we have to look for nonverbal signs.
“For example, if we are on the phone, we might hear more pauses or not a lot of clarity in the students’ voices. Their affect is different. Before, they were engaged, but now they are flat.”
Morgan said that if parents or other adults are concerned that their child is struggling, speak up. Tiptoeing around the issue, no matter how delicate, is the most harmful response toward a teen who is considering ending their life.
Open the door to conversation instead. Morgan said adults should directly confront the teen in a nonjudgmental way by mentioning behaviors they observed and asking the teen about it in a private setting, free of siblings or other people.
“Tell them, ‘We are in this together. I will listen to you and then still be here for you afterwards,’” Morgan said. “Teenagers feel safe when there is a sense of connection. Sometimes you need to find the person who has the best connection with the teen to talk to them. That may be an aunt, their counselor, or another trusted adult.”
The district keeps tabs on elementary children’s mental health, too. Sierra Smargon with CALM, the nonprofit specializing in childhood trauma, is diligently working to keep preschool- and elementary-aged students from falling through the cracks. Although the recent local increase in suicides and attempts is among teens and adults, Smargon said that she has had clients as young as 10 years old who said they have thought about suicide.
“It’s been harder to engage the younger kiddos in online classes and individual therapy when their parents aren’t home,” Smargon said. “We’ve had to get really creative about utilizing older siblings to get it set up. A 7-year-old isn’t going to remember, ‘Oh, I have therapy at 2 p.m. on Friday.’”
Access is also an issue. Though the district provides iPads to students in 3rd grade and older and extended it to kindergarten students once campuses closed, Smargon said many kids had left theirs at school when campuses abruptly closed. To ensure that therapy sessions could still continue, she said many CALM clinicians delivered the iPads to their clients’ houses and helped parents with setting up Wi-Fi.
She said CALM has created a virtual schedule with classes like How to Cope with COVID-19 for Parents and Students.
For students who hadn’t been in therapy when schools were open but are not showing up to class on Zoom, CALM is also keeping an eye on them. When a child doesn’t show up to remote learning, a CALM therapist, the school psychiatrist, and the school principal get on a Zoom call to pinpoint what the family needs. Whether it be food, a therapy referral, or financial support, the nonprofit makes sure that family’s needs are met so the child can stay in school.
Signs of Suicide in the Age of Zoom
“Oftentimes, the signs that teachers spot over Zoom are the same classic signs that we look for when school is in-person,” Wageneck said. “Like when a student appears less taken care of over time, or when a student has been present and participating in class and then suddenly stops. Sometimes they show a ‘cry for help’ through a writing assignment and their teacher picks up on it.”
The SOS curriculum implemented in the wake of the chain of teenage suicide incidents is meant to help students spot the signs in themselves and in their peers, too. Wageneck said the most important tool it gives students is the ACT acronym: Acknowledge, show Care and Compassion, and Tell a trusted adult. Although Wageneck said the SOS curriculum is being temporarily replaced by suicide-awareness videos created by district teachers and staff while the schools are still closed, the lessons taught the past two years have made an impact on the way middle and high school students face mental health.
Stone said that at Dos Pueblos High School, it has become common for students to report when they are concerned about their friends.
“A student will actually tell me, ‘Oh, so-and-so posted something concerning on Snapchat last night. I am worried about them,’” Stone said. “It is becoming acceptable for them to talk about these issues.”
She also said the district’s app called STOPit has been an important tool for students who may still feel uncomfortable about reporting signs of depression in their peers. It allows them to anonymously report a concern, and an administrator will connect with that student’s family. Cortes said at Santa Barbara High, the STOPit app has also been frequently utilized, which she has also attributed to SOS.
“I’ve noticed that 9th graders tend to report the most, because they have had two years of the SOS,” Cortes said. “Current juniors and seniors didn’t have as strong of a buy-in because they didn’t get it until they were older. I am definitely hopeful that the more we continue to do this with students, the more comfortable they will be with recognizing the signs and speaking up.”
Suzanne Grimmesey with the Santa Barbara County Department of Behavioral Wellness added that there are some signs of suicide that are more unique to teens and children than adults.
She said that online learning, though it may sound simple to some, is really hard for many kids because they require structure, routine, and regular face-to face contact with friends and adults. She recommended that parents help them create regular schedules during the pandemic and encourage them to make social connections, even if just through Zoom.
Most of all, she said, it’s important to get kids and teens to do activities that stimulate the so-called right side of their brains, which in popular culture is said to be responsible for creative, social, and visual skills and intuition.
“Encourage intentional daily journaling, some type of creative expression that uses the other side of the brain,” Grimmesey said. “Still make sure they are getting outdoors, even if it’s just taking the dog for a walk around the block or running around in the backyard.”
Engaging in these types of activities helps to change negative thought patterns that can lead to depression and wanting to end one’s life.
Mari agrees. “The only reason anyone does anything is because they’re believing their thoughts,” she said. “Andrew believed everything he thought about himself.… He is not here today because he believed his thoughts. Young people must not forget — don’t always believe your thoughts. They aren’t always true.”
➤National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:
➤ STOPit App (report mental-health concerns about a student by school):
click link to associated school website to report through STOPit.
Mobile Crisis Team:
➤ SAFTY Mobile Crisis Team for Youth (under 21):
➤ Cottage Hospital
Emergency Psychiatric Services: (805) 569-8339
➤ Crisis Text Line: 741741
(text the word “CONNECT”)
➤ Trevor Project (LGBTQ):
4•1•1 | The S.B. Public Library is hosting a free Mental Health Awareness Month Virtual Community Panel on Thursday, May 28, 5:30-6:30 p.m. Representatives from schools, government, and community orgs will participate in the panel, which will be followed by a Q&A, to talk about ongoing work to support the mental health of our community. For more info, call (805) 962-7653, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit tinyurl.com/PanelMentalHealth.