In 2016, then-Duval Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the district needed to expand student mental health services and advocate for more mental health funding. Students had anonymously self-reported more depression and suicide-related behaviors compared to their peers across the state.
Today, the rates in Jacksonville are even higher or the same.
The new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found students living in Health Zone 2, encompassing the Greater Arlington area, had the highest rate of suicide attempts. And more female students than male said they’ve made a suicide plan.
The youth risk behavior survey is given to randomly selected students in districts every other year.
In Duval, 1-in-3 high school students reported depression for two or more weeks in a row, a 6 percent increase from 2013 and about a 4 percent increase from two years ago.
About 21 percent of high school students had seriously considered suicide, 19 percent made a plan to commit suicide and 19 percent made a suicide attempt. That’s more than double the state average — nearly 8 percent — of high school students who say they’ve attempted suicide.
There’s also been an increase in the number of students using Duval’s crisis hotline: 1,490 calls this school year compared to 1,087 in 2015-16. In both years, nearly half were suicide related.
- Full report: 2017 YRBS for violence, suicide and safety behaviors
- Full report: 2015 YRBS for violence, suicide and safety behaviors
- Full report: 2013 YRBS for violence, suicide and safety behaviors
And Duval is one of just a handful of Florida districts that give the survey to middle school students, in addition to high school students.
More than a quarter of the district’s middle school students say they’ve thought about killing themselves, and about 13 percent have said they’ve tried to do so.
How Duval’s addressing the issue
The school district has been working to train more employees in a course called Mental Health First Aid.
“They’re taught the signs and symptoms that students may present that may indicate they may have a mental health concern or be struggling with a mental health crisis,” said Katrina Taylor, DCPS director of school behavioral health.
She said over the past three years the district has provided that mental health training to 2,500 employees ranging from teachers to clerical staff. That’s up from a couple of years ago, when just 900 employees had been trained.
The district also provides students access to mental health professionals. Duval has 87 “full service” schools, meaning therapists can be sent in to counsel students who are having trouble.
Taylor said although having full-service schools is better than not having them, there’s still a gap.
“What we found is that of those students that are being referred for full-service school services, only 54 percent of students are receiving the support,” she said.
More students see counselors if they have permanent offices inside schools — which they do in eight of the district’s more than 190 schools. In these “full service plus” schools, Taylor said 20 percent more referred students are actually getting the services.
District staff acknowledged the students’ above-average reporting of suicidal thoughts and depression is a problem.
“It was alarming,” Taylor said. “We recognize that it’s a concern, and we’re putting appropriate measures in place to address those concerns, so it’s not like we’re reviewing the data and not doing anything about it.”
One change is the addition of a second “social-emotional” curriculum, teaching students to handle high-risk situations and what to do if a friend is depressed. Starting in kindergarten, the material is integrated into other subject matter. And middle school students get additional lessons in their health classes.
Duval’s Director of Health and Physical Education Heather Crowley said, starting next year, a new curriculum with more games will add to those lessons. But she said it’s up to the teachers to use them.
“We had a conversation this morning about implementing and monitoring more closely with fidelity with what our teachers are doing to make sure that they just don’t have the resources in their classroom, [but] making sure there’s time within their schedule to actually implement these lessons and have these conversations with the students,” Crowley said.
Something else that might help with Duval’s high rate of suicidal tendencies is the recent passing of a school safety law requiring schools to have stronger safety measure and more mental health resources in schools following February’s Parkland shooting. The district is getting $2.6 million for this purpose.
“It will definitely help,” Taylor said. “Right now the board and leadership is trying to determine what we’re going to do, what is that infrastructure going to look like this upcoming year?”
The School Board is considering a few different options, including doubling the number of full-service-plus schools or doubling the number of district social workers.
Staff members say decisions will be made over the summer.
“We’re still reviewing this data ... having conversations around, ‘What can we do to try to increase our students’ safety?’, thoughts as it related to suicide and suicide attempts,” Taylor said.
Gay, Bisexual Students Most Likely To Be Suicidal
Lesbian, gay and bisexual students are at the highest risk. In Duval County, close to 1-in-3 LGB students have attempted suicide, compared to 1-in-6 heterosexual students. And just over 14 percent of students overall say they’ve been bullied because someone thought they were gay or bisexual.
The survey doesn’t ask students their gender identity, so the data doesn’t reflect how transgender students fare compared with their peers.
Coordinator for the district’s HIV-prevention grant Jamie Wells said the district, in partnership with the LGBTQ youth nonprofit JASMYN, has implemented a number of measures to help that population of students.
Employees are offered special badges signifying they’re a safe person to talk to. And the nonprofit offers counseling, as well as help with coming out to parents and help with forming gay-straight alliances.
Wells said 16 high schools and one middle school have active GSAs.
“We are constantly looking at the data,” Wells said. “We are constantly changing our approach.”
She said one recent change has been incorporating more student feedback in decision making and having students teach their peers.
Crowley said the district has also started to make health curricula and other materials gender-neutral to be more inclusive.
“It’s small changes,” she said. “We know from the data for years that [LGB students] feel separated or ostracized.”