1 in 5 Middle School Students Consider Self Harm, 9 Percent 7-12 ‘Made Suicide Plans’: Youth Risk Behavior Survey

Photo: the 2021 Belmont Youth Risk Behavior Survey (credit: CDC)

Jamal Saeh was shocked by what he had heard.

In March, 89 high school students and 56 middle schoolers in Belmont told health professionals that in the past year they had gone so far with a possible suicide to write out or record plans on taking their own lives.

“To say I’m stunned is an understatement,” said Saeh. “[It’s] mind boggling and frightening.”

The concerning statistics come from the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey of Belmont’s 7-12 grade students presented to the Belmont School Committee on Nov. 9.

The survey’s data justifies Saeh concern: in terms of raw data nearly one-of-five middle school students has considered suicide and approximately 9 percent in both high and middle schools have gone so far as to detail the ultimate act of self-harm.

And among students who identify as gender Queer, the percentages are exponentially greater; 36 percent in high school have considered suicide while 31 percent have planned suicide.

“That is way too many kids,” said Lisa Gibalerio of the Belmont Wellness Coalition who authored the survey with the Education Development Center.

The survey comes as school systems nationwide are witnessing “a growing crisis” on mental health and risk issues, said Committee Chair Amy Checkoway. “Districts are not equipped to handle the number of issues that are arising,” she said after attending a conference of school committees.

The survey is the second conducted by the coalition surveyed a statistically large 1,710 students in 7 – 12 grades (655 at the Chenery Middle School and 1,055 at the high school) on substance abuse and mental health concerns before (in 2019) and during the Covid year 2021.

A PowerPoint summary of the survey can be viewed by linking to this site.

Survey highlights include:

  • a reduction in use of most drug categories including vaping and marijuana from 2019 to 2021.
  • a decline in bullying in the high school while it’s in-school bullying at the middle school has increased.
  • Stress continues to lead to loss of sleep and coping through risky alternatives such as alcohol and drugs.

The survey also looked at the top five stressors at the middle and high school, according to Ellie Lesser, a Belmont High sophomore serving as the study’s student ambassador. A third of all students point to school demands as the top reason for pressure in their lives with a busy school and extra curricular schedule and worries about the future such as college choices and career paths.

The Covid pandemic which halted in-school learning for more than a year added more to the plate of students with 70 percent feeling angry, fearful and sad.

For Belmont Superintendent John Phelan, the survey’s results are “startling” just how much stress – which has been at consistent levels for several years – is impacting so many students and how vulnerable they are to the repercussions that include abusing alcohol and self-harm. In recent years, Phelan admitted the district has not been keeping up with the professional services that students and staff need such as adjustment counselors, consulting services and professional development for teachers to identify and assist students.

But change has occurred during the pandemic. He pointed to the district hiring four social workers – the first hired by the district since Phelan came to Belmont in 2013 – in the current school year to meet the increasing demands for their services. He said the survey data calls for a two-fold approach focusing on providing community and school support from social emotional assistance.

“And [that district-wide clinical model] will be part of what we’re asking for moving forward,” Phelan told the committee.

“School is just not a place where it’s all about academics. If we are not having children feel safe, heard and valued, and able to be respected and known by the adults in the building, they’re not going to learn,” said Phelan.

The committee members all expressed a need not to allow the issue to fall by the wayside.

”The numbers should shock us,” said Mike Crowley of the data on suicide planning, which should force the committee to support the clinical model in future budgets. In additional, a community conversation with students, parents, the public and educators “because any child would be thinking of self harm in our schools, our community, we have to be concerned.”

Saeh said the conversation on risk behavior must be followed up with additional meetings on the proper level of staffing and assistance to students “because we cannot look at his data not react with incredible urgency.”

By reviewing the pre and post pandemic numbers, “the pandemic is not necessarily the culprit here, this is the environment of our high school and middle school,” said Saeh.

Ann Wang of the Education Development Center said Belmont can find successful programs being used in nearby communities such as Lexington and Newton which had student suicides. “These appear to have some impact that can be measured in reducing suicide attempts,” she noted.

Phelan said the solution in the schools is to start to put in place multiple layers of support to students at every level of the district.

“We are not looking to put numbers [in the upcoming school budget] right now, but we want to acknowledge the need and start with students talking about solutions and then start to price out those solutions so that the community can know whether they’re going to support that need or not.”

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