Jordan will never forget her junior year: Within a span of several heartbreaking months, three peers at her high school, Clovis West, died by suicide—two within just two weeks of each other. A fourth student later died by suicide at nearby Clovis High School.
“The climate on campus was dismal. Every time the intercom went off to announce things, you were just waiting for the next student’s name,” said Jordan, who called the experience in the 2016-2017 school year traumatizing. “Students felt like it was us against the world. We’re losing one friend after another.”
Waves of fear, sorrow, and anger flooded through the 43,000-student school system and surrounding suburban-rural community in California’s Central Valley. For a time, a hush settled across campuses and in homes—everyone seemed to struggle with what to say or do.
For students like Jordan, there were many unanswered questions. Health privacy laws limited the district from sharing intimate details about the deaths, and without dedicated time to talk about what happened, students felt they had no space to process their grief or to share their own mental health struggles without shame.
In the uncertainty that followed, families began questioning whether the schools had sufficient resources in place to meet their children’s social and emotional needs. Teachers were on edge, wondering what warning signs they had missed—and whether more students were at risk. And no one, not even parents or friends, understood why it had happened. Looking for patterns, district leaders came up empty-handed: The students were different ages, in different grades, and hung out with different crowds.
“I think that the suicides caught a lot of people in Clovis unaware because they were expecting suicide to look a certain way—isolated kids who are struggling and alone,” said Noah Whitaker, director of a local suicide prevention task force that worked with the district after the suicides. “They didn’t realize that this issue can touch anybody’s lives.”
Hiding in Plain Sight
Unlike the congestion of California’s coastal cities, the Central Valley fans out across vast stretches of open space, framed against the backdrop of the towering Sierra Nevada. Known for longstanding success in academics and sports, the Clovis district gave off the impression that they had it all together. The suicide cluster in 2016 chipped away at that veneer.
“Suicide has not been something that we really talk about, and even when we do, it’s a whispered, ‘close the door’ kind of conversation,” said Julie Barrett, a Clovis school psychologist. “There’s been this fear among parents that ‘I don’t want to admit this is happening in my house,’ that if they come forward, their child will be labeled and that they won’t get into college.”
While the tragedies felt deeply personal, the experiences in Clovis have been shared by far too many school systems, including nearby Palo Alto and Marin. Nearly one in five high school students seriously considers suicide during the course of a year and suicide is the second-leading cause of death for adolescents ages 10 to 19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In the 10 years from 2007 to 2017, the CDC reported that rates for suicide attempts and suicidal ideation steadily climbed, and are especially high for children in rural areas and students during the school year.
Though high-profile celebrity suicides in recent years have brought suicide into the national spotlight, a longstanding stigma has stifled open dialogue, enabling myths and misconceptions to fester, say experts. This can leave everyone, including educators, ill-equipped to respond after a tragedy like Clovis’s or to get students the interventions they need before they reach a breaking point.
In responding to the suicides, Clovis district staff determined that expanding mental health resources, such as counselors, while necessary, was not enough to meet all students’ needs and could be a barrier that many children (and their families) might not overcome. Working collaboratively with support of professionals in fields such as health and law, staff developed a multifaceted effort to get everyone—teachers, parents, and students themselves—involved to improve mental health and wellness on campuses.
Parent nights were convened to improve awareness; teachers were trained in how to spot warning signs; and every campus was assigned a suicide prevention liaison to turn to for help. Most important, people were encouraged to start having more conversations about suicide to reduce the stigma and shame.
“I think what we experienced as a community was a reflection of society as a whole, and that is this reticence to talk about suicide—that if we talk about it, we’re going to plant the idea,” said David Weber, one of the district’s lead psychologists. “But we know [now] that’s not true, and if we’re really going to prevent suicides, we have to have people comfortable talking about it, and even asking that hard question, ‘Are you thinking about suicide?’”
The Teenage Brain
But adults aren’t always clued in to the goings-on of a teenager’s brain, which can make it a challenge to identify the underlying causes of their struggles—and appropriate interventions.
Research shows that adolescence is a critical developmental period, and teenagers experience emotions more acutely than any other age group, as their brains are still developing capacities like judgment and impulse control. The data also indicates that rates of anxiety, depression, and self-harm are on the rise among teens.
“Part of what we do as adults is downplay a lot of the experiences that teenagers have and think, ‘Oh, it’s no big deal,’ or ‘you’ll get over it’,” said Whitaker. “We forget what it was like to be a teenager and struggle through that.”
As part of the prevention effort, Clovis staff realized that they needed to hear from students about what would help most. Staff started inviting students to attend formerly adults-only meetings and including them in planning groups to expand mental health resources on campuses. Students were also encouraged to launch programs and resources of their own, which have since been shared between local schools.
In a recent lunchtime meeting of the student-led Mental Health Awareness Club, more than 40 students have packed into an empty classroom at Clovis North High School, grabbing slices of Little Caesar’s pizza to eat while they talk. “Maybe some people just come for the pizza,” jokes club President Taylor, who pays for the food with earnings from her summer job. “But even if they do, at least they hear what we have to say.”
Passing around a stuffed white polar bear used as a talking stick, Taylor asks the group to reflect on what’s stressing them out—homework, parents, relationships—and the strategies they’ve uncovered as a group to cope. Her hope in starting the club, which adopted the slogan “You don’t need to be diagnosed to work on your mental health,” was making sure that “no one felt alone.”
Taylor’s enthusiasm for seemingly all things—she’s also captain of the school’s cheerleading team—doesn’t mask the struggles she and her classmates have faced. Several of her friends have expressed suicidal thoughts and came close to attempting suicide, Taylor says candidly, and she did what she felt best: told them they mattered and referred them to trained professionals for help.
Handmade photo collages and posters, the handiwork of students, cover nearly every inch of wall space in Derrick Davis’s classroom at Clovis East High School. Scrawled in bright colors, messages like “End the Stigma” and “Be the Change” encourage students to seek help when they struggle. In the back corner of the room, a box filled with neon green ribbon pins and little cards with the number for the suicide hotline wait to be handed out for suicide awareness month.
Davis is a former water polo coach, and his cheery, down-to-earth nature has a magnetic effect on students, who come to his peer counseling class four days a week ready to explore topics that many teenagers are afraid to discuss: depression, anxiety, isolation. “A lot of times, students just want to know that people will listen to them and that their voice will be heard,” Davis says, when asked about his secret sauce with kids.
Peer counseling is just one of many programs the district is running these days to assist students with their challenges. Throughout the year, peer counselors at every secondary school receive instruction on topics like judgment, listening, and open-ended questions so they’re prepared to run counseling sessions independently with fellow students, who can self-refer or be referred by staff. If a student mentions self-harm or suicidal thoughts, peer counselors are instructed to immediately go to a teacher or counselor at their school for help.
Clovis’s peer counseling program recognizes the research that shows children are more likely to find solace in peers than adults, and that emotional support from classmates can improve students’ sense of belonging and engagement in school. According to Lori Hurley, an AP biology and peer counseling teacher at Clovis West High School, programs like peer counseling have been critical to opening the door for conversations that have historically been hard to have, which are raising the awareness that it’s both common and okay to struggle with your mental health.
Hurley, who was working at the school in 2016 when three of their students died by suicide, says it can feel like change is happening slowly, but she believes it is. Reflecting on her own experience at Clovis West as a student in the 1990s, Hurley remembers a friend who didn’t go on a school trip and no one knew why. Later, she learned that her friend had attempted suicide, but it was never talked about. Her friend made more attempts in college.
“For me, it’s important to let teachers know it’s okay to take that break from your curriculum sometimes to check on your students,” said Hurley. “You can’t teach a kid who is struggling and dealing with depression and anxiety and possible thoughts of suicide. That student is not going to learn in your class unless they know they’re cared for and feel safe.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, you are not alone. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). They provide free help 24/7.