Some Wisconsin lawmakers are trying to prevent suicide among young people in the state. Youth suicide rates have continued to rise over the last 10 years. And while it affects every demographic, some groups of young people report higher rates of suicidal thoughts and acts than others.
As a result, the Speaker's Task Force on Suicide Prevention convened Monday to address risk factors and solutions to the problem. Experts, survivors and family members affected by suicide spoke at Ripon College during the meeting.
The bipartisan task force was convened by Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. It was the third of six meetings to be held state wide. The task force will focus on suicide and farmers and first responders in upcoming meetings.
Dr. Kate McCoy coordinates the Youth Risk Behavior Survey in Wisconsin for the Department of Public Instruction (DPI). She says the survey shows high rates of anxiety, depression and self-harm.
"For girls, the rate of anxiety in 2017 was about 50% of high school girls said that they’ve experienced debilitating bouts of anxiety in the past year. And for boys it was about 30%, so that 39.9% is split right down the middle," she says.
McCoy says students can also be higher risk for suicide if they have been exposed to trauma, and bullying, or if they’re struggling at school.
"Students who are getting Ds and Fs report really high rates of anxiety, which may not be what you think. You make think of those A students as the ones who are so anxious all the time. But actually, the students who are falling behind, maybe not turning things in, maybe not showing up to class, they report high levels of anxiety and are in a high-risk group," she explains.
McCoy says other high-risk groups include LGBTQ+ kids, young people of color, and students with disabilities or health issues. She told the panel, in order to boost prevention efforts, it’s important for schools to create safe and predictable environments, help students with basic needs, and increase sense of belonging.
"Any one of us can feel like we don’t belong," she says. "Every student needs to be supported. But if we know that students of color, particularly, LGBT students, particularly, students in lower socio-economic strata, particularly, feel a lower sense of belonging, we go there to where those students are and we bring them in."
It can also help to minimize screen time on phones. McCoy says her survey and others have shown a strong correlation between higher screen use and worse mental health. Other experts brought up how important it is for students to have someone to confide in — whether it’s peer-to-peer or an adult like a social worker or school counselor.
Dr. Gregg Curtis, the School Counseling Consultant for DPI, says there’s a dire lack of youth psychologists and psychiatric services. He told the legislators it’s important to increase counselors both in schools and in the community.
"What can we do to either attract folks from outside Wisconsin to move here, or to increase our home-grown pipeline to get more qualified individuals out there," he says.
Curtis says access to psychiatric care is not just a want, it’s a need. He says when people are in crisis they need to see somebody right away.
"And if they’re not able to get into an emergency situation, those folks have to wait," he says. "And they come back to the school, and somebody at the school has to help them keep their head above water until they’re able to see that clinical person.”
The DPI’s Kate McCoy says students expressing suicidal thinking need to be taken very seriously — and Patty Kujawa agrees. She’s the mother of Jack Kujawa, a Marquette University High School student who took his life last October after suffering from depression.
She explains why the task force has an important role: “Because there’s so many kids who need this help," she says. "There are so many kids who are afraid, and they feel so alone. And we just need to wrap our arms around them and tell them that they aren’t. And treat this as a disease.”
The task force will compile findings and pass them along to the Legislature, for possible legislation.