suicide

Arizona high school and university students have had suicide prevention resources added to their school-issued identification cards since 2021.

 

As a mother to four daughters aged 13-16, Katey McPherson is well aware of the struggles that teens face on a daily basis. And as someone who’s been in education and mental health advocacy for more than 20 years, she has made it her mission to help those teens, through in-person and online efforts.

According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, suicide is one of the top causes of death in Arizona children ages 10-17. September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and if there’s one thing to remember, it’s this: there is help. And there is hope

Seven years ago, McPherson left her career as an educator and guidance counselor in the Scottsdale and Gilbert School Districts. Her new focus was traveling around the state and country to educate school faculties and parents on digital wellness and school safety. 

The impetus for the job change? An 18-year-old boy who reached out to his “followers” via Twitter – posting a cry for help. Receiving nothing helpful in response, he sent a final message, detailing what he was going to do – and did it. Not long after his death, three more students from the school committed suicide.

“He got in trouble at school, which triggered the loss of his athletic career. He documented his plan on Twitter. Kids were retweeting and trying to get someone’s attention, and it was like, what are we missing? That was the catalyst for what I do now,” she said. 

Then, in 2017, it happened again. Three boys and one girl died by suicide at a different school in the Valley. McPherson refers to this as a “contagion,” when one death triggers multiple in a short time.

“These kids were obviously in pain. For me, first as a mom, then as an educator, it was like ‘we’ve got to get to the bottom of this,’” she said. 

During McPherson’s ‘assemblies,’ she speaks on community outreach, mental health, digital wellness and more recently, safety regarding school shootings. She explained that most school shooters are suicidal before they become violent. 

Though it differs from person to person, McPherson said that home/school environment, social media, bullying, neglect and abuse, access to substances and firearms, and genetic predisposition are all factors in why children may be struggling. Warning signs include self-deprecating comments, isolation, declining grades or hygiene and “acting happy.”

“In 2015, the day before the incident, the student was at a school-led bonfire. Others said he was smiling and happy,” McPherson said. “They act happy because they’re at peace with their decision.” 

So, how does McPherson stay positive in an industry such as this – and what are some preventative measures parents can take? She cites: exercising, spending time with her daughters, creating a strong family bond and utilizing positive peer networks. 

One of the peer networks is Teen Lifeline. 

The organization has been active in Arizona for 36 years. They’re best known for their peer counseling crisis hotline, according to Clinical Director Nikki Kontz, who has worked  there for 28 years. 

“It initially started because of the high rate of teen suicides at the time,” Kontz said. “Since then, our focus has not wavered.”

Teen Lifeline trains teen peer counselors to man the crisis phone line and talk to kids their age about any problems they may have. Masters Level clinicians monitor all calls. 

The hotline is also used by parents, whether looking for resources or guidance in dealing with behavioral health. There’s also a prevention program for middle and high school parents, students and staff. These programs help identify at-risk kids and those struggling with mental health concerns – and provides resources both in and outside of school. 

“We also do education with the students because we know, for teenagers, the first place they tend to go when they’re struggling is to their peers,” Kontz said. “We teach teens about communicating and help connect them to someone who can help.”

Teen volunteers go through a base training of 72 to 100 hours. Volunteers participate in roleplaying exercises and even learn legal information in case a caller is in danger or needs that type of resource. 

“With mental health, nothing is one size fits all. It’s not just about taking a pill or seeing a therapist. Sometimes it’s ‘right now, I’m in crisis,’” Kontz said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean kids need formalized help; they might just need a place to talk. Crisis lines provide that, to talk about the hard things that might be too hard to speak about with people they’re close to.”

Kontz said that during the pandemic and even now, Teen Lifeline is seeing more people reach out at a higher frequency – 50 percent more – than before. The ability to call or text, or reach out to someone is destigmatizing the negativity of seeking help. 

“When we focus on ‘help is there, it’s okay to hurt,’ the more that it’s okay – it helps others and helps us to provide support,” Kontz said. “We are here for you.” 

kateymcpherson.com

teenlifeline.org


Along with being a mental health advocate, McPherson is also the director of professional development for Bark, an AI app for parents and school faculty. 

Bark monitors students’ texts, email and 30+ apps and social media platforms for issues like cyberbullying, adult content, predators, profanity, suicidal ideation, threats and more.

Parents receive text or email alerts when something potentially problematic occurs online.

Bark also offers screen time management, app and website blocking, location sharing alerts, and check-ins.

bark.us