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How this Arizona district's new suicide treatment center helped students in its 1st year

Over the past few years, at least five Chandler Unified School District students completed suicide. In one month in 2022, three teens took their own lives in the span of a few weeks. It rocked the school and the community – and came as the country is dealing with a crisis of teen mental health. So, the school board took action. 

They used federal COVID-19 money to bring in The Hope Institute, a first-of-its-kind suicide treatment center that they opened on the Perry High School campus last year. They offer short-term, 6-week treatment specifically aimed at suicidality that goes beyond the kind of stabilization a patient often gets in the hospital. 

Lindsay Taylor, clinical director of The Hope Institute, spoke more about the program and how its first year has gone with The Show.

EDITOR'S NOTE: If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, there is help. Contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988 (en Español, llame al 988, prensa 2; for Deaf and Hard of Hearing, dial 711 then 988). You may also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

Full conversation

LINDSAY TAYLOR: We use two evidence-based models. One is called CAMS. It stands for a collaborative assessment and management of suicidality. And then the other model is DBT, dialectical behavioral therapy. Those are the most effective evidence-based suicide treatment models. And so between those two, we are able to identify what is leading a person to have suicidal thoughts, we call it the drivers. And then that is what we focus our whole treatment plan around.

LAUREN GILGER: So I want to talk a little bit about the motivation from the Chandler Unified School District to, to bring this in. I mean, there was funding for it from COVID, right? So there was money available, which is rare. But also like there were some real problems, and I know you write district before this, there were some real problems with suicidality there with kids completing suicide.

TAYLOR: Yeah, during my time in the district, there was a year there where we had like three suicides in the month of May. I believe that was back in 2022. But in my time at Perry alone, we had a few suicides. And so the director of counseling and social service at the time, Brenda Vargas, she saw that there was a huge need that we needed to be able to direct families to actual help for this. And that's how the Hope Institute was kind of brought about to CUSD because it, there was an issue. And this is an issue not just in CUSD, this is an issue statewide, nationwide, but CUSD wanted to find a solution to help their students that were struggling.

GILGER: And this isn't the only Hope Institute around the country, but it is the first, right, that is directly connected to a school.

TAYLOR: Correct.

GILGER: So, talk a little bit about how kids end up there. What kinds of behavior can get them referred there? Do they, I mean, this isn't, this isn't involuntary, they choose to go.

TAYLOR: Correct. Yep. Yep. So it is definitely a choice. Parents consent to it. So any kids struggling with suicidal ideation, kids usually are identified through the school if they're having thoughts of suicide and then the school counselor, social worker, a psychologist is generally the ones that are referring them to the Hope Institute. However, parents, if they know that their kids are struggling with suicidal ideation, can also call in and refer their kiddos.

GILGER: So it's been in operation for the first school year essentially. I think it opened back in September, in the fall, right? How has it worked? Has it been successful?

TAYLOR: Yeah. So up to this point, we've served a couple hundred kiddos, which I mean, it's great that this is available now. It's sad that we need this. But the fact that we've had, you know, a couple of hundred kids come through the program. To me, that's more than just a number. That's 200 lives saved is how I look at that. And so I definitely think it's a need, A, and it's making an impact. We've had a really good success rate with clients completing the program successfully.

We have kids who, you know, have been hospitalized several times and just never got the care that they needed and then they come through the Hope Institute and we've been able to eliminate that suicidality.

GILGER: Right. So that's surprising, right, that before something like this existed and in most places where this doesn't exist, like the option is the hospital and they don't do treatment, they're just stabilizing people. What does that look like?

TAYLOR: Yeah. Yeah. So, so basically that is the option if you're suicidal is hospitalization. And really hospitals, the whole purpose is just to stabilize a client. After they stabilize a client, then they generally recommend intensive outpatient programming or just ongoing therapy. The problem is a lot of therapists don't specialize in treating suicidality. They're not CAMS trained also sometimes there's waitlist for ongoing counseling. The other thing about the Hope Institute that I didn't mention is we offer next-day appointments. So it is very important that we get clients in within 24 business hours. And then with ongoing counseling as well, generally it's once a week and sometimes kids need more than that.

GILGER: So a couple hundred kids. How young?

TAYLOR: So our youngest referral was 6. The youngest client we've actually treated was 7. And honestly, we were very surprised by the amount of elementary referrals we had this year. It was far more than we thought it would be.

GILGER: That's heartbreaking. Talk a little bit about why, like what kind of problem are kids having? What do they say is leading to this for them?

TAYLOR: So I think this is a really big question that that is multifaceted. Like I don't think there's one simple answer. But what I will say, I think is one of the biggest issues facing our kids today is technology. Cellphones. Kids, younger and younger are having these devices put in their hands and it's too much for their developing brain, they don't know how to handle it. It's making them feel less than, you know, they're online on social media, comparing themselves to others. Learning things online that maybe they are not ready to, their brains can't process, they're not, it's not developmentally appropriate for them.

Also just getting outside, getting outside is a very important part of, of coping, being in nature, being active and we're seeing less and less of that. We're seeing more isolating, more turning to the phones, and the bottom line is, phones are addictive. Technology is addictive. And so if kids are spending too much time on video games, too much time on screens, phones, whatever that is, that's going to lead to depression and anxiety. I mean, that's a fact that's been proven by research that it can lead to that. So I believe technology, too much of it, too much screen time for kids is what's adding to this issue.

GILGER: I wonder, have you had any stories that went the other way, that you weren't able to help the student and they did complete suicide?

TAYLOR: No, we have not thankfully. And, and, you know, of course nothing is, nothing is foolproof. We know that. But I think that the really important thing is, is that we're doing our best to get to the bottom of the issue and treat the issue. And I think as long as we continue to stick to that and work, work with that, we're going to be able to save a lot of lives.

GILGER: Do kids come in the program, complete it, are stable or OK for a while and then come back?

TAYLOR: Yeah. So that does happen sometimes. We have a low recidivism rate, so a low return. So the Hope Institute as a whole, every location, we've never been above 5% recidivism rate within 90 days. So, just to give you an idea, we have a location in Atlanta. It's in conjunction with the children's hospital out there. They had pulled data from their, their, from their ER from children's hospital that showed that 90% of kids who had gone to the struggling with suicidal ideation were back within 30 days. 90%.

GILGER: I want to talk about stigma in this. What about students? Are they worried that other kids are going to find out that this is something they're involved in?

TAYLOR: Yeah, so I would say majority are actually pretty open to it. Our kids nowadays are different than when we grew up. Like they are way more open to talking about these things. And so I think the stigma isn't quite as strong as it used to be. But I will say there's definitely a handful that we've seen come through that I think are worried about that. And, and that's been a little bit of a barrier, I think to getting some buy in from students, that they don't want to be labeled as that, they don't want to be seen as that. So I definitely want to acknowledge that. I think stigma is very, still alive, but I would say majority are actually very open to it.

GILGER: That's really interesting. Tell me a little bit about the big picture here in your mind. Like if you're working every day, you know, to try to stem the tide, right? Like to keep kids alive, essentially to keep them from completing suicide to, to help them move forward in their lives. And you're seeing these sort of big picture, cultural and societal things that are leading to those problems, does it feel sometimes like you're just treading water?

TAYLOR: You know, I, I definitely, I, I think about the fact that we even need this, right? Like this is not something that I think we would have needed even 10 years ago, 20 years ago. And so sometimes I do feel like this the way our world is going, kids are struggling more than ever before. So, yes, I, I definitely, sometimes I feel that way, however I also know that this is a really important step, I think, to at least addressing or treating the issue. And then prevention is another side of what we want to do with the Hope Institute is also work on that prevention piece and educating parents and the community on, what can you do to avoid getting to this spot of becoming suicidal?

GILGER: So this is going to look a little different in the future, I understand, because that COVID funding that started this program specifically related to CUSD is running out, as lots of COVID funding is. How is this going to change?

TAYLOR: So we're going to be self-sufficient. Once all of our insurance contracts get in place, so we're going to open it up to the larger East Valley community so we can start to serve more than just Chandler Unified students, which our goal is to be open across Arizona.

KJZZ’s The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ’s programming is the audio record.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.