Have you ever felt like nobody was there?
Have you ever felt forgotten in the middle of nowhere?
Have you ever felt like you could disappear?
Like you could fall, and no one would hear?
So begins the song “You Will Be Found” from the 2016 musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” a story with themes of mental illness and youth suicide. According to co-writer Benj Pasek, the lyrics took on new meaning during the COVID-19 pandemic: “We realized people all over the world were using it as a means of finding connection and hope in challenging times.”
For some, however, the obstacles can be too great. On October 13, a Milpitas teen was found deceased in his home, presumably by suicide. The news has shaken many in the community to their cores, and has them wondering, What more can we do to keep our children safe?
Says Tegan McClane of Milpitas HOPE, “When you start to talk to folks, you realize that most everyone knows someone who has struggled with serious mental health issues at some point — whether it’s a family member, a friend, a coworker, a classmate, neighbor, or even themselves.”
Milpitas HOPE is a Suicide Prevention Task Force made up of health care professionals, educators, faith and community leaders, the Milpitas Police Department, Milpitas Recreation and Community Services, and residents. It was created by the the City in 2018 as part of its Suicide Prevention Policy, offering resources and referrals to those in crisis and their families, as well as education and outreach, such as public service announcements and specialized training for Milpitas first responders and others who are likely to encounter people in crisis.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the second leading cause of death nationwide for youth ages 10-34. And according to data from Santa Clara County’s Behavioral Health Services, the total number of suicides has been increasing over the past 3 years, from 133 in 2017, to 148 in 2018, to 169 in 2019 (data from 2020 is yet to be published).
Many health care professionals admit the past few years have been extremely challenging. Says Marico Sayoc, Executive Director of CASSY, “We had to pivot to telehealth during school closings, and then we had to transition back to in-campus schooling. Our biggest challenge has been recruiting therapists who are trained for school-based counseling to accommodate the increased demand in services.” CASSY is a Milpitas nonprofit that partners with Bay Area schools to provide counseling and youth support services.
In an interview we conducted with Milpitas Unified School District (MUSD) Superintendent Cheryl Jordan earlier this year, she acknowledged the challenges Milpitas schools have faced during the pandemic: “I have a great deal of empathy and connection to what happens in MUSD. It’s my second family. So during the pandemic it was extremely difficult to carry that weight. I was trying to be mindful of the health and well being of all of our employees, as well as the students, trying to find a balance so that everybody’s health was protected.”
Says McClane, “We have been much busier since the pandemic. This is probably a combination of more people in the community feeling depressed or anxious as a byproduct of the pandemic (job losses, social isolation, illness, etc.), and more people in the community being aware of our services.”
County data shows a total of 63 deaths by suicide for those aged 15-24 from 2015-2019; that amounts to roughly 8.5% of the total number of suicide deaths for all age groups. But Milpitas as a city has one of the lowest youth suicide counts in the county, with only one in that same time frame.
As Sandra Quintana, MUSD Mental Health Program Manager, notes on her blog, “The most effective intervention for suicide is prevention. Acceptance, understanding, belonging, and connection saves lives.”
McClane echoes her sentiment: “People may not always know how to help or feel confident that they can do something for someone who is struggling, but that caring impulse is there. Milpitas is a very compassionate community!”
The stigma attached to suicide has greatly diminished in recent years, thanks in part to books and musicals like “Dear Evan Hansen.” We have learned that social media can be a positive tool if used responsibly. With the holidays now upon us, consider the following words of advice from McClane:
“Take suicidal ideation seriously and help the suicidal person seek professional help. There are great trainings available to help laypeople feel more comfortable in talking about suicide and encouraging someone to seek help. Many people are uncomfortable asking for help for themselves or a family member. But if we can help them get past that initial hesitation, help is available. We encourage people to advocate for themselves and their loved ones. Sometimes it takes a couple tries to find the right fit, but help is available.
“Our priority is encouraging anyone who is suicidal, or knows someone who is, to take it seriously and seek professional help. We can also help connect people to specialized resources, depending on their individual situations — for example, the Senior Friendship Line, which specializes in helping elderly people who are depressed or suicidal, or the Trevor Project, which specializes in helping LGBTQIA+ youth who are depressed or suicidal. We can also help connect people with resources to address factors that may be contributing to their thoughts of suicide — for example domestic violence issues or financial crisis.”
Well, let that lonely feeling wash away
Maybe there’s a reason to believe you’ll be okay
‘Cause when you don’t feel strong enough to stand
You can reach, reach out your hand
The county’s 24/7 help line is 1-855-278-4204. The text crisis line is 741741.
If you have a serious and immediate safety concern regarding a student (yourself or a friend), please call 911 or MPD at 408-586-2400. For more info: https://www.musd.org/mental-health-resources.html
So let the sun come streaming in
‘Cause you’ll reach up and you’ll rise again
Lift your head and look around
You will be found