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APS Builds Peer Support Program In Schools Most At-Risk For Suicide

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Albuquerque Public Schools is rolling out several new suicide prevention initiatives following a series of student deaths over the last year and calls from the community to do more. Amid concerns that district policy may deter students from talking to staff about thoughts of suicide, APS is partnering with Bernalillo County to roll out a peer support program in some schools.

Jay is a 14-year-old who lives with depression and generalized anxiety disorder, which makes being in school full-time a challenge. “Just times where I just can’t get out of bed and I just stay in my room all day and can’t put any effort into anything.”

This year, Jay started as a freshman at Albuquerque High School, but ended up withdrawing in his first semester after the accommodations the school provided weren’t enough to meet his mental health needs. 

When Jay was feeling suicidal at school, he says he bottled it up. “I didn't tell anyone,” he said. “Because – just from the friends that I've had who struggled with suicidal thoughts – it's like, if they talk about it, they're sent to an evaluation and either they get hospitalized or it's like decided, ‘oh, you're fine, you can go back’. And then it's like, they're not fine. They need help.”

The intervention procedure outlined on the APS website says that, following an interview with the school counselor, the parent of a student expressing suicidal ideation is called to pick them up and are given a referral to the Southwest Family Guidance Center for a same-day suicide assessment. 

Verland Coker is a community organizer who lost a bid to represent District 4 on the Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education last year and has joined APS students at board meetings over the last six months in calling for further action on suicide prevention. He says this policy – of handing off suicidal students from staff member to parent – could be a barrier to students coming forward. “That is something that is indiscernible from punishment. It's being detained and having to deal with your parents. What if you have a very horrible household and this is contributing to you wanting to [die by suicide]? You can't talk to your parents in that situation. [The APS Board of Education] just do not understand what it means to be trauma informed.”

APS did not directly respond to these concerns but stated in an email that the policy is in the interest of ensuring student safety.

Jay, the student who withdrew from Albuquerque High, says he would have been more likely to seek help from a peer than a staff member. “Approaching staff might be scary for people,” he said. “But approaching another student might be easier. Especially if they’re from...like, if you're a drama kid and you go to another drama kid, or you’re a sports kid and you go to another sports kid.”

With funding from Bernalillo County, APS is in the process of developing a Peer Helper Network in the 23 middle and high schools with students identified as most at risk for suicide, based on data from the Youth Risk and Resiliency survey.

The district says a group of students with a diverse range of interests, and staff sponsors who receive a stipend for their participation, are currently being trained. The student peer helpers will also conduct a service-learning project during the program. APS hopes to have it up and running by the end of the school year. 

The New Mexico Department of Health’s Office of School and Adolescent Health has assisted APS in building the program. The department’s director, Jim Farmer, says peer-to-peer support isn’t Best Practice for suicide prevention specifically, but is connected. “The peer-to-peer work actually is building resiliency, which looks at all risk factors,” he said. “So, it's not specific to suicide prevention. So, a slight difference I think to the way it's been pitched.”

According to the state Department of Health, suicide is the second leading cause of death for New Mexicans ages 10-34 and the state has the fourth-highest rate in the country. The biggest increase in New Mexico suicides between 2016 and 2017 was among teenagers.

APS says these numbers make it clear suicide is not only a district or school issue, but is community-wide. Victoria Waugh-Reed, the Statewide Youth Suicide Prevention Coordinator with the Department of Health, agrees. “It's nobody's fault. But it definitely is everybody's responsibility. There is definitely hope behind a lot of the things that are being done to reduce suicide, and we definitely can become one of those states that starts to see a reduction,” Waugh-Reed said. “This is not a lost cause, and this is not a list that New Mexico needs to continue to be on.”

As for Jay, he plans to return to school, hoping this time will be different.  “I'm pretty excited. I feel like I'm definitely going do better this year. I'm just in a better place than I was at the start of the school year, and I kind of understand a bit more about myself and kind of what I need from people and just from school in general.”

To find out more about other APS suicide prevention initiatives, including a training collaborative with the City of Albuquerque, click here. For more on the trainings themselves, click here

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the New Mexico Crisis and Access Line at 1-855-NM-CRISIS or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Queer and trans youth can reach the Trevor Project Lifeline by texting START to 678-678. 

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.