Amid concerns over the number of kids attempting to take their own lives and the intensity of their mental health needs, King County will run mental-health screening programs for up to 35,000 students at more than 40 middle schools starting next fall.

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In the past three weeks, three students – at least one of them a middle-schooler – have died by suicide on the Eastside, and mental health workers say the apparent spike is emblematic of a growing national trend that may be best confronted through schools.

Both the number of kids attempting to take their own lives and the intensity of their mental health needs have been increasing across the region for the past decade, said David Downing, head of Youth Eastside Services. But in the Bellevue and Lake Washington districts he has noted a particular surge.

Last fall, Bellevue educators had written 56 suicide-prevention plans for students who’d expressed thoughts of killing themselves, in addition to nine students who were hospitalized after attempts and one death by suicide – all during of the first month of class.

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Data from the 2016 Health Youth Survey show that, statewide, one in 10 high school sophomores has attempted to commit suicide.

Warning signs of suicide

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or have concerns about someone else who may be, call the the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You will be routed to a local crisis center where professionals can talk you through a risk assessment and provide resources in your community. The more of the signs below that a person shows, the greater the risk of suicide.
  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings
Source: 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline

“It’s really a significant change we’re seeing,” said Downing. “These are kids who may look ok – be doing ok in school and socially connected – but really, they are not.”

To get a better handle on kids’ inner lives and intervene before they take destructive action, King County will run mental-health screening programs for up to 35,000 students at more than 40 middle schools starting next fall. The aim is to catch students who don’t appear obviously troubled. The screenings will be funded with $12.6 million from the Best Starts for Kids and the Mental Illness and Drug Dependency levies.

Highland Middle School in Bellevue, with 533 students, will be one of those sites and already has a full-time behavioral health counselor on staff. Sarah Burdell meets with about 18 students for weekly session in her office, where the cozy leather seats are piled with stuffed animals. Kids who need more intensive help get referred to outside agencies, she said.

Many of Burdell’s patients are newcomers to the United States, grappling less with depression than a profound sense of displacement.

“I’m seeing a lot of kids dealing with missing their extended families, or having difficulty not worrying about them and focusing on schoolwork,” she said. But those students, who have come by and actually knocked on her door, have rosier prognoses than the ones who slouch through hallways, their heads down, eyes averted.

“They’re the kids I really need to get in front of,” Burdell said.

Her work is part of a three-plank battery of health interventions – dental, medical and behavioral – now hosted at the Highland Middle School clinic. Since January, when it opened, 23 students have stopped in for 202 visits ranging from simple immunizations to providing birth control or mental health counseling, said Sara Rigel, who directs school partnerships for King County Public Health.

Next school year, she expects the clinic to treat about 15 students daily.

The effort to bring health services to kids – rather than expecting them to go the traditional route of outside appointments – is part of a growing national trend.

“The bottom line is: kids are in the schools so services have to get through the front doors to them,” said Judy Buckmaster, who coordinates aid for students facing homelessness, foster care and poverty in Bellevue schools. That population has increased dramatically, she added, despite widespread misconceptions about the wealth of Bellevue families.

“I can’t say this loudly enough,” Buckmaster added. “We do have needs on the Eastside.”

Her belief in the value of school-based clinics is supported by research showing that kids who use them do better academically than those who do not. A two-year study reported in the Journal of Adolescent Health followed 2,300 Seattle ninth graders and found that students who used in-school clinics showed significant increases in attendance, compared to those who did not. In addition, kids who visited school-based mental health counselors had higher grade-point averages.

Highland Middle is one of 13 schools with on-site clinics funded by the Best Starts for Kids levy.

“This is no longer just a concept,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine earlier this week while touring the Highland Middle School clinic. “It is really making a positive difference in the lives of children and families.”