After spate of youth suicides, mid-valley faces up to unmet mental health needs

Albany Democrat-Herald, May 11, 2014

Lilly Stagner

Lilly Stagner

This is final installment in a series of stories by the Mid-Valley Newspapers examining the issue of youth suicide in the mid-valley. See Parts 1 and 2.

Every day is a new day … ” reads the beginning of a handwritten message that hangs on the wall in her room.

It served as 14-year-old Lilly Stagner’s inspiration in the morning at her house in Blodgett as she got ready for school.

Her shoes are neatly lined up in her closet, her 4-H ribbons hang from the ceiling, her artwork is displayed on the walls, and her horse figurines and photos sit on the shelves.

“Some things just don’t make sense,” said her mother, Nikki Stagner, as she looked around the room. “This isn’t the room of a girl who is ready to commit suicide.”

But Lilly, who killed herself Oct. 23, has been gone now for more than six months. The only thing that gives her mother comfort is believing that she can use Lilly’s death to help save others who feel as desperate as her daughter must have felt.

Since last fall, the mid-valley has lost Lilly and at least five other young people to suicide, prompting school districts to form an anti-suicide task force and adding urgency to changing the way the community and local agencies respond to mental health issues.

Mental health clinicians and community partners agree that there is no clear treatment path for a child or adolescent suffering from a mental health issue, and no guidance for parents. The crisis-driven system is not set up to offer help to those who are showing warning signs but who have not yet hit crisis mode — and the stigma and misinformation about mental illness remain barriers in accessing help.

But they also agree that positive steps have been taken over the past year to coordinate efforts to increase awareness of mental illness and to work toward prevention and intervention in helping to protect the mid-valley’s young people.

Secondary prevention

The Oregon Legislature passed a bill earlier this year to strengthen the state’s ability to provide mental health intervention to young people in crisis, and to keep track of youth suicide data so the Legislature can make informed decisions.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, added a second Oregon youth suicide prevention coordinator position, so that the original coordinator can continue to work in prevention while the new coordinator focuses on helping youth in crisis.

The law additionally calls for annual reports to lawmakers with data about current suicide and suicide attempts. It requires that the state’s youth suicide prevention plan be updated every five years and that it include recommendations for improved access to services and better agency collaboration.

It’s a step in the right direction, according to Dr. Caroline Fisher, the chief of child psychiatry for Samaritan Health Services. Research proves that primary prevention is the best option, but secondary prevention — helping someone with a mental health issue before it becomes a bigger problem — can’t be left out of the equation.

“The problem with the previous system was there was nothing done for secondary prevention,” she said, “and we weren’t keeping track of this information, so we had no data to figure why or where or how” youth suicide occurred.

Even when data was collected, Fisher said, it wasn’t put to good use. Now, the law requires youth suicide data to be collected, analyzed and presented to legislators.

A continuum of care

Fisher has her finger on the pulse of the mental health care system in Linn and Benton counties — and she has been outspoken about the problems she sees. But these days she sees a glint a hope, some evidence that efforts to improve the system are gaining some traction.

Her office, for example, is actively recruiting a third child psychiatrist and, through a child psychiatry fellowship, she hopes in August to have an additional professional to work throughout the different social service agencies in the mid-valley.

“That will give everyone an advantage,” Fisher said. “Psychiatric treatment in the community and more integration and collaboration between agencies serving kids with mental illness.”

Benton County Mental Health has hired a case manager to follow up with patients the morning after a crisis, and Fisher anticipates learning more good news next month when the Youth Mental Health Coalition meets to discuss the year’s accomplishments.

Fisher and Anne Schuster, a member of the Corvallis School Board, formed the group of more than 40 agencies last year to work toward a shared goal of developing a coherent system to support kids with mental illness.

“We all, as agencies, do our thing but we need to start doing our thing as shared partners in a larger, seamless system,” Fisher said.

The coalition is working to develop a continuum of care and resources, and to help youth and adults navigate through the system. Benton County Mental Health has adopted the work to fulfill the agency’s strategic plan to address youth mental illness.

What began as a Benton County-focused coalition is quickly becoming a Linn-Benton effort, Fisher said, with both counties being connected under the same coordinated care organization and with school districts on both sides of the river working together in an anti-suicide task force.

Connecting students

Some students are obvious candidates for professional help but their parents don’t have the money or knowledge of the system to seek it on their own.

Others, like Lilly Stagner, who had just started her freshman year at Philomath High School, struggle with depression or suicidal thoughts but show few or no outward signs. Outwardly, she loved her school and enjoyed a strong support network of friends and family.

School districts are taking a multifaceted approach to help patch up some of the holes in the safety net so that they do a better job of identifying more struggling youths. The idea is to help all kids across the spectrum.

The anti-suicide task force, which Corvallis School District officials formed a few months ago with Albany and Philomath schools, outlined goals of providing additional school counseling, organizing community awareness events, purchasing new types of prevention programs and sharing resources with each other and groups within the community.

Additionally, Fisher said, since Lebanon initiated its pilot program last year to screen seventh-graders for depression, more school officials have shown interest in the concept — and the schools committee of the Youth Mental Health Coalition has made universal screenings a priority.

Some parents have shown distrust toward the idea, but Fisher hopes that depression screenings will someday be as common – and accepted — in preventative care as testing for diabetes.

In another development, 30 counselors and teachers from the Greater Albany Public School District are scheduled to be trained next week in Youth Mental Health First Aid, with plans for school staff from Corvallis, Lebanon and Philomath to follow suit. The eight-hour course will train staff how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness in youth.

Beyond connecting students with trained staff or outside professional help, schools are aiming to connect kids with other kids, said Chris Hawkins, crisis team coordinator for the Corvallis School District.

“We are working on better support systems so kids are empowered and are empowering each other in more of a school-wide campaign.”

Dont look away - youth suicide‘Talk to your kids’

Nikki Stagner urges teenagers to tell an adult if they or their friends are considering suicide. She also has a passionate message for parents.

“Talk to your kids, even if you don’t think you need to,” she urged. “That’s the one conversation that never crossed our minds.”

After poring over her daughter’s writings and artwork and talking to someone close to Lilly, she pieced together that her daughter had been a victim of sexual abuse when she was younger.

It was one cause of pain eating at Lilly, but experts warn that suicidal thinking is not rational — it’s a symptom of mental illness with no one, single cause.

Lilly’s parents, Nikki and Darrell Stagner, try to not get wrapped up in the whys and what ifs. Instead, they are moving forward with a mission to help other kids who may be at risk. Lilly’s parents and her aunt, Paula May, are organizing Lilly’s Lope for Hope, a 5K and 1K fun run and walk in Philomath on Oct. 1. They plan to make it an annual event to raise money for Lilly’s Grant for Guidance, a fund to cover counseling costs for Philomath High School students in need.

“Counseling is very expensive, and even with insurance, the co-pays can be overwhelming,” May said. “We hope that this will take an unnecessary burden off of the families in our community.”

The event is also to raise awareness, something Nikki is counting on.

“I have to believe that my God is not going to take her without a good reason,” she said, “and he’s not going to take her without giving something back. A lot of people have gotten a lot of strength from this experience, and I hope there will be more.”