Washington state health officials said data from a Healthy Youth Survey indicates a high and increasing number of teens reported feeling so sad or hopeless they had ceased participating in a typical activity or seriously considered suicide.

The survey is given every other year by state education and health officials. In 2018, more than 230,000 students throughout the state took the survey.

Based on statewide results, a typical sophomore class of 29 students would include about 10 kids who reported feeling nervous, anxious or on edge, or who could not stop or control worrying in the last two weeks before taking the survey.

A dozen students in such a class would feel sad or hopeless for two weeks or longer in the past year, and three students would have attempted suicide in the past year, according to survey data.

Walla Walla County is seeing an overall increase in depression and anxiety with a matching increase in marijuana use, said Meghan DeBolt, director of the county’s Department of Community Health.

Peggy Needham, behavior health prevention specialist with the department, offered local survey data for 499 eighth-graders from 2018, including the following:

36 percent reported depressive feelings, 4 percent higher than state rates.

21 percent had considered suicide in the past year, 16 percent made a suicide plan and 10 percent attempted suicide during that time. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Washington teens 15-19 years old.

56 percent had periods of anxiousness, nervousness or worrying that could not be controlled.

48 percent reported an adult in their life who could help when they feel sad or hopeless.

Across the state, more eighth-graders who reported feeling depressed also have lower grades in school than their peers who are not feeling depressed.

Walla Walla County’s data for 10th- and 12th-grade students was not included in general results, due to the low number of schools that participated — 319 sophomores and 284 seniors completed the anonymous survey. Without more student input, those who reported risk being identified with small data sets, Needham said.

The statewide data also shows deep disparities, with certain groups of students feeling a significantly higher rate of distress. Female teens, along with lesbian, gay or bisexual students, reported higher rates of feeling sad, hopeless or anxious, and were more likely to have experienced bullying in the month preceding taking the survey, health officials said.

“Reach Out Walla Walla,” was established a few years ago in response to a cluster of local youth suicides, Needham said.

The collaborative, multiagency effort has produced resources for teens and others, including peer training at high schools, trainings that equip people to start a conversation about mental health and the annual suicide-prevention walk in Walla Walla, she said.

“Our overall message is focused on hope and connection,” DeBolt said. “No one is alone, and it is all our responsibility to ‘reach out’ to be a source of strength for those in our community.”

Walla Walla School District students also have The Health Center providers at Blue Ridge Elementary, Pioneer Middle, Lincoln High and Walla Walla High schools, said Lindsay Engh, executive director.

Her staff provides medical and mental health services to students on site, reducing barriers to getting counseling and care coordination services, Engh said, adding her employees work hard to establish relationships with all students.

In many cases, health center staff are the reported “trusted adult” referred to in the Healthy Youth Survey results, she said.

The first step in suicide prevention is having open conversations about mental health, experts agree.

Only about half the polled students indicated having an adult to turn to in times of sadness or depression; about 13 percent of sophomores said they had no one to talk to about such feelings.

Local and state officials also emphasize the following:

Know common signs of distress and the warning signs of youth suicide.

Encourage teens to seek support.

Call 911 if you believe someone is in immediate danger of suicide and has access to a firearm or other deadly means.

For more information on the Healthy Youth Survey, go to www.AskHYS.net. For immediate help, call 800-273-TALK(8255) or 866-4-U-TREVOR for LGBT-specific help.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.

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