PASCO — Suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth in Washington — third in the nation — but some students at a Pasco middle school are leading the way to help stop kids their age from taking their own lives.
The eighth-graders, Natural Helpers at Ellen Ochoa Middle School, have shown that teens can make a difference and influence their friends and classmates in a positive way.
Three years ago, 19 percent of eighth-graders at the school who filled out a health survey said they seriously had considered suicide in the past year.
It’s a trend that mirrors countywide data. The 2008 survey showed a lot of eighth-graders in the Tri-Cities struggled with depression and made a suicide plan or attempted suicide.
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In Benton County, 229 students said they considered suicide in the past year, 147 made a suicide plan and 114 attempted suicide. There also were 787 students who said they were not likely to seek help if they were depressed.
In Franklin County, 150 eighth-graders said they considered suicide, 112 made a suicide plan and 103 attempted suicide. There were 413 students who said they likely would not get help if they were depressed.
The Natural Helpers focused their attention on suicide prevention for the next two years and saw their school’s number drop to 14 percent in 2010.
“The neat part about it is with this group, they know what they’re doing and there’s a reason to it,” said Claudia Serna-Stephenson, a counselor who leads the student leadership group at Ochoa.
Stresses teens face include puberty; new social demands from family, peers, teachers and society; and emotional changes, experts say.
Last year, the students made 33 classroom presentations about suicide prevention and awareness, teaching about warning signs of depression and suicide to watch for and how to get help for a friend.
“Show you care, ask the question and call for help,” said Pedro Salazar, 13. He then quickly recited the number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. “1-800-273-TALK.”
They also encourage their classmates to talk to a counselor at school, an adult or one of the Natural Helpers.
“Most people think about suicide because they don’t have a trusted adult to talk to,” said Jennifer Ramos, 14.
Presentations also were made to parents and staff.
Cassandra Muniz said it was challenging giving the presentations at first, because not all the students took it seriously. But they began to pay attention when they found out how many kids their age have thought about killing themselves.
It also made a difference when they found out the percentage of students at their school who seriously considered suicide was higher than the state average of 14 percent, according to the 2008 Washington State Healthy Youth Survey.
In 2010, Ochoa’s rate dropped in line with the state average.
Pedro said he felt proud when he saw the new numbers “because we were able to do our job.”
“Nobody likes to think about somebody trying to kill themselves,” he said.
Before being able to teach other kids, the Ochoa students attended a three-day camp last year at which they received training about suicide prevention and awareness.
Thirteen-year-old Alberto Saenz said he was surprised to learn “that there were a lot of people who are depressed and think about suicide.”
But Itzel Ramirez said she also learned “that we can make a difference and help.”
For their efforts, Ochoa Middle School received the 2010-11 Trevor Simpson Lifesaver Award and with $500 to help prevention efforts this year.
The award, given to two schools each year by the Youth Suicide Prevention Program, is named in memory of Trevor Simpson, who was 16 when he died by suicide in 1992. Trevor’s parents, Scot and Leah Simpson of Edmonds, then became advocates for suicide prevention, awareness and education.
Leah Simpson made the trip to Pasco recently to present the award.
“She was happy for us,” Cassandra, 13, said. “She said that we made a change in everyone’s life.”
Serna-Stephenson said she couldn’t be more proud of the students taking the lead and being willing to share their personal stories with their peers.
“Watching them together gives me so much hope,” she said.
The students were selected by their peers to be Natural Helpers in the school, meaning fellow students said they were kids who they would turn to for help. This year, there are 54 students in the group.
Ochoa is the only middle school in the Pasco School District that participates in the peer-to-peer training through the Youth Suicide Prevention Program, said Kristi Haynes, a field coordinator for the program.
In the past few years, Haynes has gone into all the high schools in Kennewick, Richland and Pasco and some middle schools to train student leaders like Ochoa’s Natural Helpers, so they can train other kids. The lessons learned through the program about being more caring to others also helps with anti-bullying programs, she said.
“Kids know it’s going on but kids are a little freer to talk about it,” Haynes said. “They don’t have the stigma.”
The Youth Suicide Prevention Program, a nonprofit in Seattle, was established in 1999 to lead the statewide effort to reduce youth suicide.