A 9-year-old Denver boy felt desperate enough to take his own life on the fourth day of school. Last year, an Aurora fifth-grader also died by suicide. And in 2015, it was two Fort Collins sixth-graders.
These shockingly young victims raise particular alarm in a state where suicide rates are among the highest in the nation.
Such youth suicides are also forcing educators, parents, and lawmakers to grapple with an uncomfortable reality. Years of anti-bullying efforts haven’t done enough to change school culture, and suicide prevention efforts barely touch the elementary level even as suicide attempts by very young children seem to be increasing.
State Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, voiced frustration about her unsuccessful efforts to pass legislation that would allow children as young as 12 to get counseling at school without first obtaining their parents’ consent. The current age limit is 15.
In 2019, she plans to push an ambitious proposal to assign social workers not just to every school but to every grade in elementary school. Initially, she said, legislation would test this idea on a small scale.
The issue of youth suicide is deeply personal for Michaelson Jenet. Her son, now a junior in high school, attempted suicide when he was 9, the same age as Jamel Myles, the Denver fourth-grader who died last week.
“I’m devastated by the loss of this young man, and I would hope that everyone in Colorado feels the loss,” Michaelson Jenet said. “No child should experience what he experienced, and together, I hope we can work together so that it never happens again.”
Myles’ mother said her son had recently come out as gay and was bullied at school.
Eric Sparks, assistant director of the American School Counselors Association, said while LGBTQ students often experience bullying and bullying may have played a role in Myles’ suicide, it’s hard to draw a direct line between the two.
“We never know for sure what’s happening with a student who has taken their own life. We have clues. We can look backwards. We can second guess ourselves or others. But we just don’t know for sure,” he said.
Regardless, it’s important for schools to establish a safe and inclusive culture from the first day of school, he said.
He noted that there are curriculums that cover LGBTQ issues for elementary-age students in an age-appropriate way, including one from the national advocacy organization, GLSEN. Such lessons aren’t about sex, but about respecting people with all kinds of differences.
While many Denver middle and high schools have Gay Straight Alliances or clubs for students who identify as LGBTQ or allies, there are no district-wide elementary-level programs, said Ellen Kelty, director of the Denver Public Schools department that oversees social workers and psychologists. School social workers and psychologists are trained in how to support gay and transgender students, and are available to consult with teachers, she said
Sparks acknowledged that teachers and school staff don’t always witness bullying because it takes place out of earshot, but said it’s important for them to talk to kids about reporting it.
“It’s not tattling. It’s making sure that adults know so they can address the situation,” he said.
Sarah Davidon, research director of the statewide advocacy group Mental Health Colorado, said for adults and adolescents who die by suicide there’s a high correlation with depression.
“With younger children that’s not the case. It tends to be more of an impulsive action,” she said. “It’s more related to not having the people around them to talk to or give them the support they need.”
It can be hard to attribute a child’s suicide to one thing, she said. In the case of Myles, “I think it can be attributed to a 9-year-old boy who didn’t feel like he had another option,” she said.
Jenna Glover, a child psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado, said suicide attempts remain very rare for children under 10, but seem to be increasing. There’s no one obvious answer as to what’s driving the increase. It seems to be a combination of social media, which can turn bullying into a 24-7 torment, increased stress from kids being asked to accomplish more at younger ages, and adults not understanding how that stress can build up into a feeling that there’s no escape.
“We don’t think of our younger kiddos as having mental health problems,” Glover said. “We really need to be more proactive in asking our kids how they’re coping with these stressors.”
Glover said teaching kids skills for coping with big emotions is just as important as teaching reading and math, and those lessons should start in kindergarten.
“It’s a big responsibility to put on schools, but schools are in a good position to do something because they spend so much time with kids,” she said.
Davidon said schools also need help from the community to support students’ mental health, including strong partnerships with local mental health centers and information for educators about Colorado Crisis Services, which offers immediate crisis support via phone lines and text lines.
Jamel Myles’ case has echoes of last year’s death by suicide of a 10-year-old Aurora girl, Ashawnty Davis, a fifth-grader at Sunrise Elementary in the Cherry Creek School District. Her family said she took her life after a video of her confronting a bully was posted to social media. Lawmakers cited the case as they ordered the Colorado Department of Education to develop a model anti-bullying policy for districts to use. The state already requires that schools have a policy and makes some grants available to promote those efforts.
However, efforts to expand school-based suicide prevention efforts proved more challenging. Near the end of the session, a modest grant program that would train school staff – but not fellow students – to recognize the warning signs of suicide finally passed.
Two years ago, the legislature passed a bill allowing a state grant program that pays for mental health staff at secondary schools to expand to elementary schools. In part, it was a recognition of the growing incidence of mental health issues in younger students.
Last year, about three-dozen school districts, as well as several charter schools, received grants through the program. But demand far exceeded supply, with the state education department receiving $17.4 million worth of requests from 66 applicants and awarding $9.2 million to 42 applicants. Denver received money for 22 secondary schools.
Denver, like some other Colorado districts, has gradually extended suicide prevention and mental health promotion efforts into elementary schools in recent years, but the programming and services are often more limited than those for older children.
Last year, Denver Public Schools piloted a new suicide prevention curriculum for fifth-graders called Riding the Waves that teaches students to identify and cope with stress. The district tried it in five elementary schools, and the plan is to expand to more this year, Kelty said.
That expansion is a recognition that these issues are affecting younger and younger students.
“When I started years ago, it was high school issue,” Kelty said.
Most Denver elementary schools also teach a curriculum geared toward encouraging kindness and teaching students how to be a good friend, Kelty said. The district doesn’t mandate schools use a specific set of lessons, and different schools teach different curricula, she said.
The district also has a bullying prevention grant through the Colorado Department of Education that pays for a trainer who works with a small number of schools, Kelty said.
In addition, the district recently started giving some of its students a “universal screening” that checks on their mental health as well as their physical health. The screenings happened in about 70 of the district’s 200 schools last year, Kelty said. While it’s often obvious from their behavior which students are outwardly struggling, the screening is meant to identify those who may be internalizing feelings of depression or the effects of trauma, Kelty said.
Sparks, of the counselors association, said one lesson for schools from Myles’ death is to “always be vigilant about the health of your students and the culture of your school, that culture of inclusiveness for all students.”
Colorado Crisis Line: 1-844-493-8255, coloradocrisisservices.org. You can chat online or text TALK to 38255.
Crisis Text Line: crisistextline.org. Text 741741 from anywhere in the nation to reach a counselor.
Mental Health First Aid Colorado: mhfaco.org. Classes teach participants the signs and symptoms of mental health challenges or crisis, what to do in an emergency, and where to turn for help.
Mental Health Colorado: https://www.mentalhealthcolorado.org/ This statewide advocacy organization offers a free mental health toolkit for schools.
Suicide Prevention Coalition of Colorado: www.suicidepreventioncolorado.org. The coalition works to reduce suicide through education and advocacy.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: afsp.org. The foundation pays for research, raises awareness, and provides support to those affected by suicide.
Colorado Department of Education: Bullying Prevention: cde.state.co.us/mtss/bullying. Find current research, best practices, and grant programs.
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