When counselors at Peninsula High School began noticing a serious uptick in the number of students struggling with thoughts of suicide, alarms went off for Principal Mitzi Cress.
“I started having open conversations with anybody that would listen — I think we have a crisis here,” said Cress, a former counselor herself who has served as principal for more than six years.
She wasn’t alone. At nearby Palos Verdes High School, counselors were reporting a similar spike on their campus, and administrators there began looking into adding programs to provide more emotional support for students.
Those efforts have come to fruition in several programs on both campuses, including a new student wellness center that opened at Palos Verdes High on Wednesday. And, at a higher level, the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District has started mulling options to address student wellness at various grade levels.
Cress said counselors began noticing the sharp increase in students having thoughts of suicide in the fall of 2015. Normally, that number would range from two to four in a year, she said, but during that time it jumped to about 25.
At Palos Verdes High, Principal Charles Park said there’s been a roughly 30 percent increase in the number of students reporting suicidal thoughts in the four years he’s been at the helm. Also rising is the number of kids looking for general emotional support, he said.
“I would say that, from our school sites, they have consistently reported concerns about the number of students who have expressed either unhealthy habits or experiencing depression, anxiety,” said Don Austin, superintendent of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District.
It’s not clear exactly what’s behind all the angst, and Cress emphasized that no one factor is to blame. In addition to pressure on students to succeed academically, Cress said much of the prevailing research points to social media as an influencing factor. The lack of emotional connection from social media platforms, coupled with the fact that posts to Facebook and Twitter often show only the best parts of an individual’s life, can worsen depression for already struggling students who feel they can’t compare to an idyllic virtual life, she said.
“That’s why, in developing a program, it has to be well thought out with huge breadth in terms of service and identifying a variety (of issues),” she said. “There isn’t just one fix.”
Now both campuses have put an extra emphasis on mental health and student well-being. At Peninsula, Cress has spearheaded efforts to increase counseling, training for teachers and staff and a new psychologist set to join the school’s staff in January.
Palos Verdes High has started offering sessions on yoga, mediation and other stress-relief programs to take place at the wellness center and a monthly focus on topics that include drug and alcohol use, and stress and anxiety. Park also hopes to add a school psychologist by the end of the academic year to run the newly opened center.
In a district consistently ranked among the best in the state, Cress said the pressure to perform can take its toll on students. She described a cycle in which a student, stressed over an academic workload, misses sleep to keep up, which in turn can lead to more anxiety, which then can lead to drug and alcohol use, and possibly suicidal thoughts.
“We need to teach kids to be more resilient and to offer support, because there’s always going to be challenges in life,” Cress said. “It all comes back to, how can you deal with that in a healthy way?”
According to the 2015-16 California Healthy Kids Survey, 18 percent of the district’s freshmen had considered suicide within the 12 months leading up to the survey, an increase of 3 percentage points from the same survey in 2013-14. The survey also reported 17 percent of juniors having suicidal thoughts, down 1 percentage point from 18 percent in the 2013-14 survey. That’s about the national average of 17 percent of high school students who have considered taking their own life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Now the schools are taking what administrators call a proactive approach to dealing with students who show signs of needing help. Addressing those issues head on is part of a forward-looking plan to help prepare students for the stresses of college and beyond, said Trista Ramirez, associate principal for counseling and guidance at Palos Verdes High.
“What we’re also hearing from college admission officers is that kids are getting to college and they don’t have the coping skills to deal with setbacks and stress ... so we wanted to make sure that we provided that opportunity for them to learn it here in high school where there’s a safety net,” Ramirez said.
While efforts like adding counselors and training staff have taken root in the district’s high schools, an overarching plan for the PVPUSD as a whole is still in the early stages, Austin said.
“The grass-roots efforts of departments and school sites has reached a point where we need to coordinate those efforts,” Austin said. “What I’m asking everyone to do right now ... is to slow down a little bit and get us all on the same page, because there are so many different good things happening on all of our school sites that I’m not sure we have a good handle on what all of those things are.”
Once district staff members have a better idea of what’s already in place on various campuses, they’ll be better able to coordinate financial and staffing resources to move forward, he said.
The district has plans to implement a wellness committee, something Austin said school districts in Northern California — which have been hit with spates of student suicide in recent years — put in place during their efforts to address the mental well-being of students. That committee should be in place by the end of the upcoming semester, he said.