The world can be a lonely place in late adolescence and early adulthood, and sometimes it’s hard to go on.
“Suicide is the third leading cause of death in the nation, after accidents and disease, in this age group, 16 to 25,” said Karin Sellite of the Sonoma County Department of Health Services.
To find and help potentially suicidal or mentally ill youths before it’s too late, county mental health officials decided to reach out to them where they live much of their lives — at school. According to most studies LGBTQI young People are three times as likely to attempt suicide.
In late 2010, the health department set out to place trained therapists and social workers in every high school and college in Sonoma County.
The Crisis Assessment, Prevention and Education Team (CAPE) started counseling students in the Sebastopol area and gradually expanded its reach. By January, the program, headed by Sellite, will be in 16 county high schools on a regular schedule, as well as Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University.
“Our CAPE counselor should be known as the Caped Crusader. We have our counselor from CAPE on campus two days a week, but we can call her, or any CAPE counselor, whenever we have a crisis,” said Rand Van Dyke, principal of Maria Carillo High School in Santa Rosa.
“We also have had CAPE train our teachers at a faculty meeting,” Van Dyke added, “and CAPE does class presentations for our students.”
Since students are most likely to turn first to their friends, and because teachers are in a position to spot signs of trouble early, it’s important to provide students and teachers with as much information as possible, Sellite said.
The message is simple: If someone you know is in despair, talking about wanting to die or displaying extreme mood swings, call in some help right away.
“We need to elminate the stigma,” Sellite said. “With the high school students especially, we assure them that telling someone a friend is suicidal is OK. They’re afraid their friends will feel betrayed.”
In an emergency, the CAPE counselors might have a student transported to a hospital for admission. In a less urgent crisis, the student might be referred for therapy or other treatment on an ongoing basis. But most of the time, students meet with CAPE counselors on campus.
“We’re seeing students referred to us by school administrators and school counselors,” Sellite said. “We try to include the faculty and the family, too.”
Students’ confidentially is protected, however, so even family can’t be included in the counseling sessions without the student’s consent.
“We can notify parents that their student is being seen by a counselor, but not what it’s about,” Sellite explained.
For the schools, CAPE counselors are a welcome support for the campus staff.
“Crisis prevention counselors have been able to provide … one-on-one for students who are at risk, or who are experiencing the onset of mental illness,” said Sally Bimrose, principal of Piner High School in Santa Rosa.