‘Someone is going to succeed’
By ANDREW MCGINN
The same afternoon that a former student returned to the high school in Parkland, Fla., that expelled him, leaving the hallways strewn with shell casings and human carnage, teachers in Jefferson gathered at Greene County High School for a talk about the state of their own students’ mental health.
For months, high school special needs counselor Kyle Kinne has been trying to sound the alarm on a worsening sense of despair felt by students.
He took his statistics to a school board meeting last May, where he and other district counselors made an impassioned plea to reverse cuts to their ranks.
But Kinne still longed for a bigger audience, which he finally got the afternoon of Feb. 14 when teachers from all grades made mental health the topic of their professional development time.
By sheer coincidence, one of the worst school shootings in history — one that left 17 people dead — was unfolding in Florida.
A similar shooting could one day befall even Greene County High School, Kinne said, but in reality, local students would seem to be at greater risk to themselves.
Despite the news coverage generated by mass shootings, most gun-related deaths in the U.S. each year are suicides, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
The law of averages being what it is, Kinne explained, it’s only a matter of time before a local student takes their own life.
More and more of them are contemplating it, which is why Kinne, 41, is still reeling from the results of the most recent Iowa Youth Survey, a biennial undertaking by the Iowa Department of Public Health to pick the brains of students in grades 6, 8 and 11 on the issues of substance abuse and violence.
More than 17 percent of Greene County students in 2016 (which includes both school districts) answered that they seriously thought about killing themselves in the past 12 months — up from 12.1 percent in 2014 and 12.6 percent in 2012.
“It’s eye-opening,” Kinne said.
Statewide, an average of 13 percent of students thought seriously about killing themselves.
“It doesn’t shock me. I hate to say that,” said therapist Jean Lumsden, of Private Victories Counseling Services in Jefferson.
Greene County students were also more apt to have planned out a suicide or to have outright attempted suicide at rates higher than their peers statewide.
“Someone,” Kinne fears, “is going to succeed.”
At a time when the school board has set a graduation rate goal for the district of 100 percent — a response to data showing Greene County’s dropout rate to be the highest among all surrounding high schools — Kinne can only hope that every student will at least live long enough to earn a diploma.
“We should be talking the same way about our kids’ mental health,” he explained. “One kid struggling is too many kids.”
Students in October will again take the Iowa Youth Survey, but with fewer resources available now to local students than when Kinne started in 2001, there’s no reason to believe the 2016 statistics were a mere fluke.
“I know budgets,” Kinne said, “I get that.”
Last spring, Superintendent Tim Christensen heard Kinne’s presentation to the school board and asked what’s more important to the district as a whole: college classes or mental health.
The district is down one counselor from this time last year after a position was vacated and unfilled.
“That begs the question,” board member Steve Fisher said at the time, “are we a school or are we a social agency?”
In 2016, 19 percent of Greene County 11th graders — this year’s senior class — said they seriously thought about killing themselves in the past 12 months. Of 11th grade girls locally, that number jumped to 28 percent.
In Greene County, 12 percent of students said they had planned out how they would kill themselves, compared to 8 percent of students statewide.
Five percent of Greene County students said they actually tried killing themselves in the past 12 months, with 13 percent of eighth-grade girls locally saying they attempted suicide.
Statewide, 4 percent of Iowa students said they tried killing themselves.
As of 2017, suicide is now the second-leading cause of death nationally for people ages 10 to 24.
When confronted with a statement on the 2016 survey — “Violence is the worst way to solve problems” — 40 percent of 11th grade boys locally said they either disagreed or strongly disagreed with that.
A lifelong Jefferson resident, Kinne isn’t a guy who’s easily rattled.
Right out of Grand View University in 1999 with an undergraduate degree in human behavior, he went to work for the Woodward Academy, the residential juvenile treatment facility in Woodward.
“You have to think on your feet,” Kinne said, recalling his year at Woodward. “You have kids who already don’t have much to lose.”
Now a licensed mental health counselor, Kinne has expressed a sense of disbelief in the findings of the Iowa Youth Survey ever since they were released in 2017.
He also can’t help but wonder whether teens have truly changed or whether he was just blind to mental health struggles as a local high schooler in the ’90s.
“I have to think we must have been sheltered,” he said.
Actually, a paper this past fall in the journal Clinical Psychological Science suggested that the generation of teens born after 1995 — dubbed “iGen” by one of the authors — is more likely to experience mental health issues than the millennials before them.
The cause could be as close as the back jeans pocket of every girl.
A 33 percent surge between 2010 and 2015 in the number of U.S. teens feeling useless and joyless — along with a 31 percent spike in teen suicides — correlates with the “sudden ascendance of the smartphone,” Jean Twenge, one of the paper’s authors and a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, wrote in November in an accompanying essay that appeared in The Washington Post.
By 2015, 73 percent of the nation’s teens had a smartphone, Twenge wrote.
As of Feb. 5, according to the Pew Research Center, 77 percent of all Americans owned a smartphone — up from 35 percent in 2011.
The ability to be on social media all day, every day, everywhere, may be taking a greater toll on society than meets the eye.
Twenge, for one, cited two studies that each found that more time spent on social media leads to unhappiness — and today’s teens are spending far less time interacting with friends in person.
There’s also no reprieve anymore from bullying, Kinne said.
“If we were having a bad day,” he said, “it stayed at school.”
Now, that bad day can follow a student from Facebook to Snapchat to Instagram.
Lumsden, a marriage and family therapist in Jefferson, hears from kids that they’re lonely.
Not only is the term “friend” relative in the age of social media, but many aren’t receiving guidance from their parents, either.
“We’ve got parents who are behind their phones, too,” Lumsden said. “They can’t even talk to parents. It’s a breakdown of communication.”
Disconnected parents often aren’t able to recognize signs of depression in their children, she said.
“Parents need to be parenting,” Lumsden said. “We need to become families again.”
Kinne is hesitant to believe that today’s teens are all that different from previous generations.
“Problems with kids change with time,” he said. “Kids still remain teenagers. They still remain impulsive. They’re not adults yet, even though we want them to be adults so bad.”
He’s fond of a quote complaining about “kids today” attributed to none other than Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher:
“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households.”
It goes on: “They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs and tyrannize their teachers.”
“Even from Socrates’ time,” Kinne said, “people have been bad-mouthing kids.”
In fact, everything in Socrates’ supposed quote has been applied to virtually every generation since.
“You would just need to add, ‘And they never get off their phones,’ ” Kinne said.
But what’s clear is that 17.4 percent of local teens have thought seriously about killing themselves.
That would seem to be a cause for alarm in any era.
Short of adding resources in a school district already strapped for cash, Kinne feels the community at large can play a role in reversing those statistics. An act as simple as saying hello to a teen can make a difference, he said.
Mentoring is another way, he said.
Of course, whether the adults themselves can be bothered to look up from their Facebook feeds is now a legitimate question.
That leaves Kinne to wonder: If one out of every five students locally has seriously contemplated suicide, when will one go through with it?
“I hope it’s not during my time,” he said.
17.4: The percent of Greene County students who thought seriously about killing themselves in the past 12 months
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255