Fresno County health, education leaders meet to fight teen suicide

Dawan Utecht, Fresno County behavioral health director, hopes that a series of community leader meetings after a rash of teen suicides will help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues.
Dawan Utecht, Fresno County behavioral health director, hopes that a series of community leader meetings after a rash of teen suicides will help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues. jwalker@fresnobee.com

Faced with a big jump in suicides by young people this year in Fresno County, local school districts, hospitals, government agencies and law enforcement met Wednesday to begin addressing how to best handle mental health issues and ensure each agency has the ability to help those in need – especially children.

“There’s stigma and discrimination against issues related to mental health that make people reluctant to seek help,” said Dawan Utecht, director of Fresno County’s behavioral health department. “You go to the doctor when you get a cold – take insulin when you have diabetes. It should be the same with mental health. Sometimes you just need to talk to someone.”

Utecht has spent the last few days distributing literature on mental health and suicide prevention after news broke Dec. 15 of a Clovis West student taking his own life – the third at that school in as many months. In all, 11 children in Fresno County have taken their lives this year, up from three such deaths last year.

This spike led county leaders to convene the first of what will be several meetings over the next few months. Utecht said the first step is to pool resources and ensure that as many public and private entities as possible have access to basic training on how to help students or employees with mental health or substance abuse challenges. Eventually, the county would like to put a training course in place where anyone who may come in contact with students or employees dealing with mental health problems can learn how to help.

More than 90 percent of people who take their own life are depressed or have other mental illness, she said, and many try to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Knowing how to spot the warning signs is key. Those include talking about wanting to die, hopelessness, feeling a lack of purpose, being a burden to others, and feeling trapped or in pain. A full list is available on the American Psychological Association’s website.

“Even if someone is not planning to kill themself, all of those are signs of someone who can use some help,” Utecht said. “That’s the goal: If you see someone who is struggling, let them know they have help if they need it.”

Combating mental health issues is particularly difficult in schools, Utecht said, because children are impulsive and vulnerable.

The challenge goes beyond Fresno County. A new state law, AB 2246, deals directly with suicide prevention in public schools. It requires districts with students in grades seven through 12 to adopt a policy to “specifically address the needs of high-risk groups” and provide teachers with any associated training on suicide awareness and prevention. The high-risk groups listed include students who know someone who has taken their own life; have disabilities, mental illness or substance abuse disorders; or are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or questioning.

Is zero tolerance a factor?

Clovis Unified School District, parent district of Clovis West, had a representative at the countywide meeting.

In the last few days, the district directed all employees to pay close attention to each student and revisit any child who had any mental health issues earlier in the year, spokeswoman Kelly Avants said.

One issue up for discussion could be the use of zero-tolerance policies. Utecht did not mention Clovis Unified specifically, but she said that these policies “don’t always work very well, especially when kids don’t know they can get help.”

These students worry that asking for help, especially if substance abuse is involved, will just get them in trouble, Utecht said.

“One-size-fits-all, black-and-white policies make it challenging,” she said. “And we need to make it easier for kids to get help.”

Clovis Unified’s policy reads: “Any student who... is found under the influence of a controlled substance and/or alcohol and/or any other form of intoxicant ... shall be immediately suspended by the principal and recommended for consideration for expulsion from the Clovis Unified School District and/or for involuntary transfer.”

However, Avants said that the mental health of a student takes priority over student discipline, and each zero-tolerance case “is treated individually and in the way we feel is best able to help a particular student.” She added that this point is made clear to students by mental health professionals during annual talks in each English class – the most recent of which occurred on Dec. 15.

Neighboring Fresno Unified swapped its zero-tolerance policy for restorative practices in 2013 at the urging of organizations such as Fresno Building Healthy Communities that said punishing students by kicking them out of school was pushing them to a life of crime.

Avants said the district is currently evaluating many policies, but it isn’t looking to move away from zero tolerance.

“We have traditionally felt that creating boundaries and creating a standard of how you learn and how to operate within those boundaries is important,” she said. “Discipline is important, and we’re not going to back away from that.”

To get help

Central Valley Suicide Prevention Hotline: 888-506-5991