Editor’s note: This is the first in an ongoing series of stories addressing the issue of suicide among Cumberland County students. Future stories will cover topics including suicide in LGBTQ+ students and the potential impact of new “parents’ rights” legislation; the impact of military life on children’s mental health; and what researchers in North Carolina are doing to prevent youth suicide. Have insight to share or an idea for a story? Please reach out to reporter Lexi Solomon at email@example.com.
UNC-Chapel Hill professor and psychologist Dorothy Espelage doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to student suicide in North Carolina.
Not enough is being done, she says, to prevent young people from taking their own lives.
“To this day, you’ll continue to see very little prevention efforts — primary prevention, trying to get upstream, trying to create school connectedness and belonging and trusted adults so that kids don’t get depressed [or] anxious and attempt suicide,” the education professor said Thursday. “It just varies by county and district, by school, even [by] schools within districts.”
In Cumberland County, the battle to prevent suicides has only gotten harder in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Gretchen Walker, the lead school counselor at Jack Britt High School.
“I definitely think there’s been an uptick… with Covid,” she said Wednesday. “I know people are tired of hearing that word, but it really changed the dynamic of our relationships with students. Students were isolated for almost two and a half years from their peers and from staff. We have noticed a lot of students are still trying to recover.”
City sees increase in suicides
During a third-quarter presentation to the Fayetteville City Council in November, Police Chief Kemberle Braden said he was concerned about the 52.4% increase in suicides in the city from 2022. Though the data didn’t disaggregate by age for those who died, Braden noted that 21 people had died by suicide by the third quarter of 2022, compared to 32 people by the third quarter of 2023.
The Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office told CityView it does not track suicides. It is unclear how many Cumberland County students died by suicide in 2023.
According to an infographic from the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services’ Injury and Violence Prevention Branch, from 2011 to 2020, 1,746 North Carolinians ages 10 to 24 died by suicide, comprising 40.4% of the violent youth deaths during that period. Youth suicides increased by 103% from 2011 to 2020, another infographic states.
In Cumberland County, from 2016 to 2020, there were 19.1 suicides for every 100,000 North Carolina residents, according to the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services. The national rate in 2020 was 13.5 suicides per 100,000 people, the National Institute of Mental Health reported.
According to a survey by the CDC of North Carolina high school students, in 2021, 10.1% of high school students surveyed had attempted suicide at least once in the past year, while 22.3% had seriously considered attempting suicide.
Though recent data is not yet available for Cumberland County, the county’s health director, Dr. Jennifer Green, told The Fayetteville Observer last year that she had seen a significant increase in the number of youth deaths by suicide.
“What’s going on with our youth is what, I think, for me, is alarming and what we really want to pay attention to,” Green said.
Nationally, from 2021 to 2022, the CDC reported an 8.4% decrease in suicides among people ages 10-24.
What Cumberland County schools do
Walker, who is one of five full-time counselors at Jack Britt, said part of her duties involved checking in with students about their social and emotional well-being.
“Cumberland County Schools uses the Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale,” she said. “All school counselors and all social workers are trained to administer the scale. There’s a series of questions that we ask of students, like, ‘How often are you having these thoughts? Have you had any plans to actually follow through? Do you have access to guns or weapons at the house?’”
If the scale indicates any level of crisis, in addition to following up with the student, counselors will call a parent or guardian to let them know their child may be struggling, Walker said.
“We’re not licensed therapists, so we can’t demand that someone see a therapist, but we can say things like, ‘Hey, we did this assessment [and] there were some questions that were a red flag,’” she said. “We definitely make contact with parents no matter what.”
But a large part of preventing suicide goes back to those who know students best — their parents and peers, Walker said.
“I believe there are some warning signs that a lot of people may be aware of — telling their friends and family members that they may be thinking about wanting to harm themselves,” she said. “The cutting… Getting rid of possession of some very good items that they’ve had for years. Taking pills or trying to get a hold of firearms. Making statements to adults in the building that they’re feeling hopeless or not wanting to live.”
In high school students, increases in absences or sleeping in class can be additional warning signs, Walker said.
“I’d rather parents overreact and make sure they’re OK and have them see somebody who’s trained and let that person determine whether or not there’s an issue,” she said.
Students can also submit anonymous tips through the app Say Something, which Cumberland County Schools promotes as part of a partnership with the nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise, Walker said.
“We have an anonymous tip line where they can actually report if they’re having concerns about a friend,” she said. “Or they can actually go to a teacher. Our teachers are our first level of defense because they see students way more than the student services staff does.”
More ways to help?
Walker said she’s proud that licensed therapists are available to students in some Cumberland County high schools, but hopes that therapists can be available in every school in the near future.
“It’s good to refer students to a licensed therapist where parents don’t actually have to come check them out or take them for an appointment after school,” she said. “The therapist is right here on-site.”
Espelage, meanwhile, is focusing on her efforts with UNC to implement Sources of Strength, a youth mental health and suicide prevention program focusing on community and hope, in 10 pilot high schools across North Carolina.
“This is a two-year demonstration grant, because Sources of Strength has been found to reduce suicides in my prior studies,” she said. “We don’t have a control group. It’s not a scientific study… Because of the parents’ rights legislation, we were only able to collect data in five of the 10 schools.”
The program works by training adults who students can trust, who in turn train students to serve as leaders who can share positive messages about mental health and direct struggling peers to help and resources, Espelage said.
“What we know… is that when you have Sources of Strength in a high school versus a control school, these peer leaders are more likely to refer a depressed or suicidal student or friend or peer,” she said. “We also had found reductions in suicidal ideations; in our last trial, we saved four lives. Four kids in the control condition killed themselves, versus four [who] did not in the intervention, which is pretty huge.”
Though the program isn’t being tested in Cumberland County, Espelage said she hopes additional solutions will emerge to attempt to prevent the future increase in suicides she foresees in North Carolina, especially in LGBTQ+ students.
“Some of the practices and policies we’re putting in place I fear may contribute to more suicides,” she said. “There’s just not enough prevention — primary prevention — happening.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, the following resources in Cumberland County are here to help:
Reporter Lexi Solomon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 910-423-6500.