As Pasadena Teens’ Suicide Attempts Rise, Mental Health Care Professionals Reach Out to Engage the Community

Published : Tuesday, April 30, 2019 | 5:41 AM

Dr. Paul Kurkjian sees 23 cases of attempted suicides by young people every month at Huntington Hospital. It’s almost one every day, and the numbers have increased dramatically over the last few years, he said.

What’s even more troubling is that 40-50 percent of those suicide attempts occur by children 9 to 12 years old.

That’s one of the reasons he and the Pasadena Unified School District are teaming with Huntington Hospital to present “Suicide Prevention – A Toolkit for Parents,” on Wednesday, where pediatric psychiatrist Kurkjian will be the keynote speaker.

Lara Choulakian is a licensed clinical social worker with Pasadena Unified for the child welfare attendance and safety office. She said the modest goal of the presentation is to start a conversation and talk about assessment and working with students before and after a suicidal incident.

“And we’ve seen such an uptick in suicidal ideation in our students and they’re starting pretty young,” Choulakian said. “It used to be middle and high schoolers, but now we’re really seeing the elementary school level students presenting with the signs and symptoms of suicide or just suicidal thoughts. So what we’re trying to do is make our entire school community aware of the signs and symptoms of suicide, help prevent, and link students to services.

Kurkjian works with several local hospitals, and says a lot of anxiety in teens and younger kids today comes about as a result of social media, anxiety over homelessness, pressure to succeed in school and genetic makeup.

“The number one reason why a child would overdose and the most common thing I hear is ‘because my mom took my cell phone away,’” which he said, “blows people’s minds” who are from an older generation.

Suicide is the No. 3 killer of teens and young people, Kurkjian said. Car accidents are the leading cause of death among teens and homicide is No. 2.

Technology is only one of the factors that has led to an increase in suicidal thoughts and attempts. Kurkjian said social media can lead to copycat behavior.

“In general social media just makes things much more likely to spread like wildfire,” he said. “So there’s a lot of imitative behaviors, glorification of self-injurious, self-harm behaviors. There are websites dedicated to this.”

In Pasadena there are more at-risk and vulnerable teens and children than in most Southern California cities because of the high number of foster care organizations and homes here, Kurkjian said.

The number of foster home-based children locally plays a role in the high number of emergency room visits to Huntington Hospital, he said.

But even after that influence is factored out of the number ER visits for attempted suicide by young people, there is still an increase in the number, Kurkjian said.

“I think a lot of people from all over the vicinity get funneled to Huntington, but [suicide attempts] are popping up at a lot of other smaller hospitals. And the school just doesn’t know how to handle the onslaught of, bullying or social media addiction, the rise in hatred with our politics and all this homophobia, transphobia, all other issues that are coming into play.”

“The environment can perpetuate your symptoms or triggers can prove to precipitate a crisis,” Kurkjian said. “It’s not black and white. If you were lacking a lot of protective factors, even if you’re not suicidal, that raises your risk. You have look at the big picture. Some people have a family history of mental illness. They are more genetically predisposed to be vulnerable to a trigger that maybe would not trigger someone else.”

Talking about signs of possible suicide or symptoms of depression is a good start in addressing the problem across the community, Kurkjian said.

But Pasadena Unified, Huntington Hospital and the psychiatrist all agree there needs to be risk assessment and that is in the development stage

“People think it’s contagious, if they talk about it, that it’s going to put the idea into [young people’s] heads more,” Kurkjian said. “There are myths about suicide.”

Choulakian said it’s important to keep kids safe once they show signs of suicidal thoughts.

“We work on how to create a safety plan for the child,” she said. “We went around personally helping principals identify their teams on site and then we would personally go out to their school sites to train these teams so that they feel more confident because it’s a pretty overwhelming topic, it’s a pretty scary topic, especially for those nonclinicians on these campuses. And these teams do consist of, you know, there’s principals, security guards, health clerks, nurses, and some have their behavioral interventionists there, behavioral support staff, their front office staff.”

She said working with other agencies as well as faculty and administration is key.

“We teach them the risk levels, low risk, high risk, moderate risk, um, um, we teach them how to conduct a basic assessment, and then if they need to call a see the psychiatric mobile response team, what type of information to give, how to inform a parent.”

People who are not mental health professionals should also play an important role in helping prevent suicide, but often it’s an overwhelimg task to do a risk assessment, Choulakian said. After identification there is the process of referral depending on the situation, she said.

“We have community-based agencies that we partner with,” she said. “We have a consortium of seven LA County-contracted Department of Mental Health agencies. And so we help them learn how to refer to them or if we provide them with a large resource list because we do rely heavily on our, on our collaboration and our partnerships with our community mental health agencies.

Helping those students who are at risk of possible suicide at any level in the future is crucial and getting them re-engaged in school after an incident is challenging.

“Once they’re deemed okay and the doctor has discharged them from the hospital, we want to reintegrate them back into the school site and we want them to have a smooth transition back into school,” Choulakian said. “So we hold a re-entry meeting. So we teach the school to hold a parents meeting and discuss who should be at the meeting. It’s a collaborative meeting.”

With the meeting the hope is to open dialogue, to connect, and to put parents in touch with resources and devoted people like Kurkjian, Choulakian said.

The event is open to the public. “Suicide Prevention – A Toolkit for Parents” is scheduled to be held from 6:00 to 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 1 (doors open at 5:30 p.m.) at the McKinley School’s Auditorium, 325 S. Oak Knoll Ave., Pas

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