Young people in the East Valley ignited a school campaign for mental health awareness this spring. Now, they want a seat on the school board to reduce the risks of suicide.
Arizona is ranked No. 49 in the nation for youth access to mental health care, according to Mental Health America, a “community-based” nonprofit dedicated to addressing the needs of people living with mental illness. The 2020 youth ranking, set on seven key measures, indicates there exists a very high prevalence of mental illness, while the state provides relatively little access to insurance and mental health care.
Riana Alexander, a senior at Chandler High School, and four other students sparked a local movement seeking mental health support after founding the advocacy group Arizona Students for Mental Health early this summer.
“We just want to be able to have a voice like constantly throughout the school year, so we don’t have to wait until something tragic happens and the community’s like finally speaking out,” Alexander said.
The organization is centered around obtaining mental health training for all teachers and staff in Chandler Unified School District – the state’s third largest school district with 12 middle schools and high schools. Understanding that education cannot be mandated for all pupils, Arizona Students for Mental Health believes making it available is a priority.
Alexander said many adults in the district have “opposed” the work of their organization.
“In three years, I think I’ve learned that mostly when it comes to mental health stuff, if you need help at school, you’re gonna get it from the students, not teachers or office staff,” Alexander said.
On June 8, seven students, each from different institutions, spoke at the school district board meeting to ask for a nonvoting seat within the governing board. Students reported little feedback and no email response from board members.
The district, which staffs two social workers, has not yet posted meeting minutes from that date.
Additionally, the students are asking for the authorization of their own “student action board.” Made of two students from every middle and high school in the district, the proposed body would meet once a month with school board members, the superintendent and a representative from the Chandler City Council to collaborate on this important issue, exploring solutions “to fix it,” Alexander said.
“We’re all teenagers and we took time out of our summer break to work on this, which we’re happy to do,” Alexander said. “But it’s pathetic that we have to do this. And there’s just been so many suicides, and so many people are struggling. It’s so frustrating that the people who were elected to make sure this didn’t happen aren’t doing anything – they’re leaving it to us.”
At least eight Valley young people have died due to self-directed behavior or accidental substance-abuse overdoses this year, experts say. This includes three lives lost in Chandler, two in Phoenix, one each in Arcadia and Gilbert.
“I really think that people generally need to start having the conversation about the link between suicidality and somebody’s planning of a mass attack because it keeps happening,” said childhood activist Katey McPherson. “Yet schools and parents and communities shy away from talking about suicide itself.”
McPherson, a former educator and Chandler mom, is well-known to Valley parents and school administrators for her mental health initiatives, which center “digital wellness and resiliency” in adapting comprehensive solutions for preventing potential youth suicide. With 25 years of experience in educational leadership, she currently advises local administrators, parents and pupils on how to organize around the nation’s increasing mental health crises.
On May 26, McPherson requested the Chandler City Council and Chandler Unified School District host an emergency meeting on youth mental health and school safety.
The district is hosting a panel of “national leaders” in mental and behavioral health at the end of this month to present its efforts over the last five years, said Stephanie Ingersoll, the district’s executive director of communications and marketing.
It partners with three police agencies in “helping students make informed choices so they can avoid dangerous abuse of online communications, and its subsequent penalties,” according to the school district website.
“I can tell you that this is an ongoing effort. It is definitely a very serious thing that is not just specific to Chandler Unified,” Ingersoll said. “The pandemic really revealed that the community is in need of mental and behavioral health in general.”
Speak Up for Safety is the institution’s anonymous tip line that students can call at (480) 573-8808 or email [email protected] to report students in crisis, threats of violence and weapons in school, among other urgent situations.
McPherson, who volunteered to lead a social media and bullying working group, is one of many parents to sit on the House of Representatives’ new Ad Hoc Committee on Teen Mental Health.
The committee met in early July to recommend agencies across the state improve resources on digital citizenship, substance abuse, behavioral health and access to health care for youth, and their support systems, potentially experiencing suicidality.
Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers initiated the committee at the end of May, two days after the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where an armed student killed 22 people. Its first meeting, originally set for June 14, was twice rescheduled.
No students were invited to address the public health issue of youth suicide.
Chaired by Rep. Joanne Osborne, R-Goodyear, and Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, the caucus is composed of state government officials, behavioral health experts, religious leaders and Goodyear Police Sgt. Sean Tyler, who is the SRO Unit Chief for Arizona schools. Three additional working groups, which will reconvene in September, were formed after the first session in early July.
It will file a report of its findings with the speaker of the House in December.
Arizona Department of Health Services Child Fatality Review Program cited 49 suicides in 2020, with a 30% increase from 2019. Out of those suicides, 42 were of adolescents. And 100% of the suicides were preventable, the research reads.
“You’d be dumb to not look at this data and see that we have a massive failure on our hands,” McPherson.
Anyone who needs help can call 988, which is designated as the new three-digit dialing code that will route callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.