In every average-size high-school class in this state, there are likely two or three students who have attempted suicide in the past year. An additional three or four probably have seriously considered ending their lives.
Those numbers are from the latest Healthy Youth Survey, given statewide to students in the sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades. And the results of that fall 2016 survey, released last week, found that the percentage of students who experience high anxiety, and who consider or attempt suicide, is on the rise in Washington state.
The number of eighth- and 10th-grade students who have thought about suicide, for example, has increased by at least 6 percentage points in the past decade. That suggests a greater need for counselors and suicide-prevention training in schools, experts said.
“We’re concerned,” said Michael Langer, behavioral health and prevention chief for the Washington State Division of Behavioral Health and Recovery. “When you look at the number of young people in our state that this is affecting, that’s a challenge. Nobody wants a young person to be in a place where they feel like they don’t have supports, whether in home or in school.”
The Healthy Youth Survey is administered every two years to more than 230,000 Washington students in all counties. The survey asks students a number of questions about health and health-risk behaviors such as alcohol and drug use, violence and bullying.
In the 2016 survey, girls reported a higher rate of suicidal thoughts and attempts than boys. Among the sophomores surveyed, 26 percent of girls reported thinking about suicide and 13 percent said they had attempted it, compared with 14 percent and 7 percent of boys, respectively. However, more teenage boys die from suicide, according to the Washington State Department of Health.
Students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or queer also appear to have high rates, though not every school administered the survey questions related to sexual orientation. In the schools that did include the optional question, 38 percent of gay and lesbian students said they had considered suicide and 25 percent said they had attempted suicide. Among bisexual students, half said they had considered suicide and a fourth said they had made a suicide attempt. Those rates are at least two times the level of classmates who identify as straight, with 16 percent saying they considered and 8 percent saying they attempted suicide.
Most high-school students said they have some form of support related to mental health and suicide. But for students who felt sad or hopeless for at least two weeks in a row, about one in 10 said they don’t have anyone they could go to for help.
Shira Rosen, a director at the suicide-prevention nonprofit Forefront, said the need for reducing the stigma of mental health and suicide is one of the most significant take-aways of the survey.
“Clearly, there needs to be more resources available,” said Rosen, Forefront’s director of school and higher-education programs. “Schools can be overwhelmed by the need, which is no fault of the schools, but there is just more need to help students and their overall health and well-being.”
Among high-school seniors, the survey also found that about one in three are experiencing high levels of anxiety. The survey determined anxiety level through questions about whether students feel anxious, nervous or over the edge, and whether they’re able to control worrying.
In response to an increase in stressed-out students, several Seattle-area schools have started incorporating mindfulness and stress management into their school days. At Roosevelt High School, for example, staff members have added a 20-minute break for students each day.