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Bill hoping to reduce Arizona teen suicides approved by House committee

Posted: 6:23 AM, Mar 28, 2019
Updated: 2019-03-28 09:23:58-04

A bill that aims to reduce the growing number of teen suicides in Arizona has moved one step closer to the Governor's desk. Senate Bill 1468 was heard by the House Judiciary Committee this morning and passed unanimously.

The bill, also known as the Mitch Warnock Act, is a bipartisan effort to implement mandatory suicide prevention training for all public and charter school staff in response to 88 teen suicides in 2016 and 2017, according to Teen Lifeline. Data for 2018 is not yet available.

Christine Nguyen, who founded the East Valley Coalition for Suicide Prevention, said numbers her organization kept indicated 32 teens died by suicide in the last 17 months. Nguyen said the number of teens who died by suicide since 2016 was enough to fill five classrooms.

The emotional hearing had many including lawmakers in the hearing room shedding tears. State Representative Bret Roberts, whose district covers parts of Casa Grande and the northern Tucson suburbs, struggled to find words before expressing his support for the bill.

"As a fairly new father, I hope there's a lot of work done in this field," he said.

Lawmakers thanked all of the parents, like Tim and Lorie Warnock, who shared their grief and sorrow with them during the hearing.

The couple, both East Valley teachers, lost their son Mitch to suicide. Mitch was a star athlete at Corona Del Sol High School and known for his compassion and willingness to help others.

"He was always looking out for vulnerable kids or those who needed help," said his father.

His mother said her son's death came around the same time a teammate from his high school ended his own life. At the time, district officials instructed teachers not to mention the word "suicide" because they feared it could trigger others to do the same.

"I could not mention the word suicide, only say something very sad has happened. Here is a journal for you to express your feelings," said Lorie Warnock.

Now, things are different. Several Valley school districts have taken steps to address the sensitive issue of teen suicide on campus. The Warnocks said as teachers they welcomed a bill that would empower them and their colleagues to help other children who were silently suffering. Warnock said she had personally experienced teens telling her about personal details they felt they could not even talk to with their parents.

"I am a teacher; I love kids. I love every one of my 160 students in my classroom even if they don't necessarily love me back. I love them, and I do not want to face another empty chair."

Like many of the other families who showed up to share their stories with members of the judiciary committee, the Warnocks said they were dedicating their life to helping find ways to prevent teen suicide.

"We don't have a child any longer. These are our kids, Arizona's kids," said Lorie Warnock.

The bill's sponsor, state Senator Sean Bowie, has a district which covers Ahwatukee and parts of Tempe and Chandler--an area where many children have been lost. He said his bill, which requires teachers to receive suicide prevention training, was inspired by that loss.

Mitch Warnock was one of several teens who had talked to friends or teachers about his plans to end his own life.

"Staff members heard him verbalize he was going to end his life, but they didn't know the protocol," said Lorie Warnock.

The bill gives school districts a lot of flexibility in terms of how they want to implement the training. They could choose to do it online or in person, and it would require teachers to go through the training once every three years. The curriculum would be set up by the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), the state's Medicaid agency.

After a unanimous vote, the bill now moves on to the House Rules Committee, and from there to the House floor for a full vote before being sent back to the Senate. If it passes every round, Sen. Bowie said he expected the bill to go before the Governor in the next three weeks.

According to mental health experts, a person contemplating suicide may exhibit the following behaviors:

They may talk about killing themselves or feeling hopeless. You may hear them say they feel hopeless or like a burden to others. You may notice them turning to drugs or alcohol. Withdrawal and isolation are also big red flags. They may sleep too much or too little and start giving away prized possessions, and visiting or calling people to say goodbye. Mood changes may include everything from depression to anxiety to loss of interest, irritability, humiliation/shame, anger or a sudden feeling of improvement and relief.

Information posted on Teen Lifeline's website offers detailed warning signs, symptoms of teen depression.

The website states teenage depression isn’t just bad moods and the occasional feeling down or blue—it’s a serious problem that impacts every aspect of a teen’s life. For more information on understanding teen depression, click here.

Here is a look at some of the symptoms:

These symptoms must last for at least two weeks and be present for most of the day every day.

  • Feeling sad, teary, or grouchy – generally depressed. Depression is a strong mood that involves other emotions like sadness, discouragement, despair and hopelessness.
  • Losing interest in things you used to like
  • Trouble sleeping: Sleeping too much or too little
  • Changes in appetite or weight: Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain.
  • Feeling tired or restless all the time
  • Feeling guilty or worthless, like you’re a “bad person”
  • Difficulty concentrating in school
  • Preoccupation with death or dying
  • You find it hard to participate in everyday activities

There are also physical signs of depression, including:

  • Body pains and muscle tension
  • Upset Stomach/Digestive Problems
  • Dizziness
  • Frequent crying
  • Over sensitivity
  • Angry outbursts

Depression in teens can look very different from depression in adults. The following symptoms of depression are more common in teenagers:

  • Irritable or angry mood: Irritability, rather than sadness, is often the predominant mood in depressed teens. A depressed teenager may be grumpy, hostile, easily frustrated, or prone to angry outbursts.
  • Unexplained aches and pains: Depressed teens frequently complain about physical ailments such as headaches or stomachaches. If a thorough physical exam does not reveal a medical cause, these aches and pains may indicate depression.
  • Extreme sensitivity to criticism: Depressed teens are overcome by feelings of worthlessness, making them extremely vulnerable to criticism, rejection, and failure. This is a particular problem for “over-achievers.”
  • Withdrawing from some, but not all people: Depressed teenagers usually keep up at least some friendships, while adults may completely isolate themselves. However, teens with depression may socialize less than before, pull away from their parents, or start hanging out with a different crowd.
  • What should you do if you feel depressed?

It can feel difficult and sometimes impossible to take that first step to help yourself. With the right skills, support, and services you can get better! For more tips and tools on how to help yourself or a friend visit: http://www.helpguide.org/mental/depression_teen_teenagers.htm

Here are some helpful tips on ways to manage your depression:

If you or anyone you know is showing signs of depression or anxiety please call staff at Teen Lifeline want you to know that you're not alone. You can call 24 hours a day 7 days a week at 602-248-8336 (TEEN) or statewide in Arizona at 800-248-8336 (TEEN). Teen volunteers are answering phones from 3PM to 9PM everyday. If you call outside those hours there are other professionals there to help you.