Clovis West student suicides not connected, but point to larger trend, experts say

Three Clovis West High School students have committed suicide since August. The school and Clovis Unified School District provided counseling help to the campus Thursday and Friday in the wake of the latest incident.
Three Clovis West High School students have committed suicide since August. The school and Clovis Unified School District provided counseling help to the campus Thursday and Friday in the wake of the latest incident. Fresno Bee file

While the suicide deaths of three Clovis West High School students since August left that school reeling, mental health experts say more emphasis should be placed on prevention.

The most recent suicide involving a Clovis West student occurred Thursday. Police said the student was found dead around 6:30 a.m. at a home near the school.

Afterward, more than a dozen school psychologists and a therapy dog were made available to students. Clovis Unified School District spokeswoman Kelly Avants said those resources continued to be available Friday and will be available as long as students need them.

The district also is developing an anonymous tip line students can call if they are considering taking their life, or are worried about a classmate who may be suicidal.

Clovis Unified Superintendent Janet Young said the suicides don’t appear to be connected. “Our schools are a microcosm of our community, and to this point we have found no connectivity in social circles or program involvement between the three young people who we have lost from Clovis West High School,” she said. “We’re learning from our conversations with many experts in the mental health field that our losses appear to reflect what’s being experienced at a county level.”

For the three-year period spanning 2013 to 2015, Fresno County had 10 teen suicides. But there have been 11 this year alone, said Dawan Utecht, director of Fresno County’s behavioral health department.

“It’s definitely a spike,” she said. “There’s no doubt about it.”

Utecht said she is not aware of other local spikes, but that it is a trend in other cities around the country. She said she doesn’t know what specifically could be causing the rise in suicides by young people, but said teens are vulnerable because of internal and external pressures.

“They’re trying to figure out who they are,” she said. “It would be so easy if we had a simple recipe for suicide.”

Copycat phenomenon

One of the possible contributors could be “copycat suicide.” Researchers at Columbia University and other institutions have found that suicide can be contagious and that people ages 15 to 19 are particularly prone to it.

As for whether Clovis Unified has a higher share of suicides than the rest of the county, Avants said that is something the district is exploring.

Utecht said social media complicates prevention efforts. On one hand, people can be vicious online, hence the prevalence of cyberbullying. But whereas people used to keep their struggles to themselves, social media has changed that.

“Don’t be afraid if you think someone is exhibiting those warning signs to ask them about it,” she said.

Some Clovis West parents have said the district fails to prevent students from killing themselves. Not everyone agrees.

Christina Valdez-Roup, executive director of the local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, has two children who attend Clovis West. She pointed to the Clovis Unified mission “for all students to reach their potential in mind, body and spirit” as evidence that the district genuinely cares. She said the district is reacting appropriately.

But Valdez-Roup said help too often is reactive. While Clovis Unified freshman health classes include information about mental health and suicide prevention, Valdez-Roup said both of her children took the class as independent study, which meant they missed out on participating in the discussion.

Valdez-Roup said the responsibility to prevent suicides and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues goes beyond the school district. She has open conversations with her children about mental health and directs them to alternate resources if she is not the best person for them to talk to about something.

“We’re desperate for answers. But in searching for that, let’s look for the best answers,” she said. “It’s a society problem, it’s not just a Clovis West problem.”

Andrea Castillo: 559-441-6279, @andreamcastillo

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