TRUCKEE, Calif. — Upon seeing a classmate sitting alone at lunch, fellow students won’t hesitate to invite him or her to their table.
This kind of behavior — kindness, acceptance and inclusion — is something Mason Kimmel wants to see become the norm within Tahoe/Truckee public schools as students try to navigate through their day-to-day lives.
“We’re actually struggling with a lot of the same stuff, despite your own thoughts,” the Truckee High School senior said, referring to his peers. “… Either way, we’ve just got to sit back, take a moment and realize no matter how hard it may be right now, we can only go uphill from here.”
Results from a series of wellness surveys conducted late last school year revealed 36 percent of local high students exhibited symptoms of mental health illness.
Of 107 Tahoe Truckee Unified School District high school students screened, 39 tested “positive” — 20 at Truckee, 13 at North Tahoe and 6 at Sierra Continuation.
A past suicide attempt or suicide ideation within the last three months automatically makes a screen positive, said Shellee Sepko, clinical coordinator of “What’s Up? Wellness Checkups.” Drug use and a high number of symptoms of social phobia, depression, anxiety and others can also make a screen positive.
“It was surprising and difficult at first becoming aware of how many teens are struggling with serious mental health symptoms, but … I mostly feel relieved and grateful that we have the opportunity to find teens in need of help,” Sepko said.
‘A WAKE-UP CALL’
The first round of What’s Up? Wellness Checkups ran from March to June 2013 in TTUSD’s three high schools, not long after several recent youth suicides.
Program development began prior to those incidents, officials said, and was designed to identify and connect at-risk students to help by referring them to Placer and Nevada counties’ behavioral health services, therapy and counseling, various support groups, and faith-based organizations.
“The goal is not to collect data on students, but to hook students up with resources,” said Corine Harvey, TTUSD executive director of student services. “… The rest of the students were given tools and strategies if, and when, they need help.”
Kimmel and fellow Truckee High School senior Diana Rosas were among the 107 young adults who participated last school year. Both said they found the approximately 10- to 15-minute computerized questionnaire and one-on-one follow-up with a trained mental health professional helpful.
“It really does help because you have, like, a wake-up call,” said Rosas, who is president of Truckee High’s Sources of Strength, a student club that aims to prevent suicide and create a positive, healthy school atmosphere for peers. “Before you might not have noticed, ‘Oh, I am completely stressed, and I’m a little depressed because I’m not able to enjoy the things I used to enjoy.’
“You have a reality checkup.”
Kimmel, an active Sources of Strength member, said the screening gives students struggling with an issue a confidential way to seek assistance.
“The thing is the student population is really harsh when kids actually come out and are like, ‘I need help,’” he said. “Everyone just pins them as, like, the psycho, the downer. You get all these labels from it when kids actually try to come out and say they need help.
“(So) they just bottle it up, and keep it inside. … That’s why the wellness checkups are a good thing because they can finally get the help they need without having to expose it to the public.”
Of the 39 students who tested positive, 25 were provided with case management so they could complete three sessions with an outside resource to ensure a successful treatment connection, according to screening results. The remaining students were either already getting treatment or their symptoms did not require services at the time.
“We’re all about prevention,” said Jen Winders, the program’s case manager and outreach coordinator “So if we can prevent a crisis from happening, we’ve done our job.”
A CALL FOR MORE PARTICIPATION
That prevention effort, in conjunction with promoting teen wellness, continued with the October return of What’s Up? Wellness Checkups, running through the end of the 2013-14 school year, Sepko said.
“One of our goals is to normalize mental health checkups as part of ongoing health maintenance of teenagers,” she said. “Mental health is equally as important as physical health.”
While screenings are aimed at 10th-graders due to them having the highest national rate of completed suicides, all high school students can be included by submitting a parent-approved consent form, Winders said.
Last year, of 279 consent forms sent out among TTUSD’s three high schools, 118 were turned in with a “yes” consent, or 42 percent. The national consent average for the program, modeled after Columbia University’s “TeenScreen” program, is 25 percent, Winders said.
“It just really says something about the families within TTUSD — first, they support their teens, and second, they want to normalize mental health just like physical health,” she said.
The number of students screened (107) was slightly less due to the student either not consenting to the screening or being absent on screening days.
Still, room exists for more participation.
“The program is as successful as the community allows their children to be screened,” said Rebecca Slade, children’s program manager with Nevada County Behavioral Health.
Nevada County Behavioral Health is again funding the program, at a cost of $190,000 for TTUSD and Nevada Joint High School this year, Slade said.
When asked if they would do the screening again, both Rosas and Kimmel said yes.
“It also gives the community an idea of how students are reacting to their school life, their home life,” Kimmel said. “… It can give the community a little bit better idea of how to help.”
One thing Rosas would like to see in the community is more places for teens to hang out and relieve their stress in healthy ways.
She said students, especially juniors and seniors, are under a lot of stress trying to balance school life, after-school activities and responsibilities, a social life, and pleasing their family.
“It can just be really overwhelming,” she said. “Just don’t have as much pressure on the students. … You know what could help also would be parent education — showing ways you can push your child to want to achieve and succeed, but also to teach them how to not go too far.”
Winders said even students who screened “negative” for mental health symptoms were dealing with “a lot” of stress.
As for the TTUSD community, Kimmel would like to see a culture shift.
“(People) just being friendlier in general to everybody else would make a huge difference,” he said. “… With a lot more people that are friendlier to you, you have a lot more places to go, a lot more people to talk to, a lot more resources at your fingertips, so to speak.
“(Therefore) you’re not just confined to talking to your teachers and talking to your friends’ group, but you can talk to basically anyone, and they can help you with whatever you’re going through.”
At the same time, the district’s Suicide Prevention Task Force intends to promote two educational programs to help people recognize the warning signs of suicide and how to respond: Know the Signs, and Question, Persuade and Refer (QPR) Gatekeeper Training, Harvey said.
“We are continually looking at providing more social and emotional support (to students),” she said.
When asked how school culture could begin to shift, Kimmel said through small acts of kindness, such as opening a door for a peer, asking a classmate how it’s going or complimenting a person.
“It’s a long shot,” he said. “We can’t just have change overnight, but if we can implement the idea of being nice to everybody, it will in turn lead to a nicer school district (environment).”
“I mostly feel relieved and grateful that we have the opportunity to find teens in need of help.”
Tahoe Truckee Unified School District