Seeking help when needed
COC lost 8 students in last 6 years to suicide despite help being available
Mental health professionals know there are no certainties in their line of work — and if someone doesn’t reach out, they can’t get help.
At College of the Canyons, for example, no student who’s been through the counseling center offered on campus has committed suicide. Still, the college is not immune from the national crisis that represents the No. 2 cause of death nationally in individuals 18-24.
In fact, over the past six years COC has lost eight students to suicide, none of whom ever used the college’s mental health resources.
“There’s no guarantee,” said Larry Schallert, assistant director of College of the Canyons Student Health Center. “But we know that people who do actually make it in, have not taken their lives.”
In December, a well-liked Hart district senior studentathlete killed herself, leaving a community mourning another life cut short. At the beginning of this year, a Saugus family of four was killed in a murder-suicide by Michael Birnkrant, who killed his wife, children and then himself in January, according to homicide investigators with the Sheriff’s Department.
While celebrity suicides raise the profile of the suicide discussion temporarily, the stigma and other barriers to mental health are a big part of the focus for the SCV Committee on Suicide Prevention PostVention and Wellness, which meets monthly at COC and focuses on how it can further develop partnerships and access to increase the availability of mental health resources in the Santa Clarita Valley.
“In response to the most recent losses of well-known celebrities and the new Netflix season of ‘13 (Reasons Why),’ we are encouraged to double our efforts to be vigilant with those with whom we are close both professionally and personally,” Schallert wrote in a recent email to the group, which includes representatives from the city of Santa Clarita, the Sheriff’s Department, Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital and stakeholders in the mental health community, among others.
The support is constant at the college, whether it’s through the handful of free counseling sessions that are available free to all students, Schallert said, or the frequent events the college hosts around raising awareness of the resources, such as its recent Shine a Light event. (The event puts 1,100 paper lanterns in the college’s Honor Grove — one for every college student who killed themselves in the last year — in May, for Mental Health Awareness Month.)
After the suicides of world-famous designer Kate Spade and then, days later, renowned foodie and TV star Anthony Bourdain, the county Public Health Department sought to echo the message that’s been spread locally for several years now:
“Suicide is devastating, and we all need to come together to reduce stigma and ensure that it is easy for anyone to connect to support,” said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Public Health Department. “We urge everyone to take time to learn about the warning signs of suicide and how each of us can help someone who may be at risk. Resources are available to help people in need of support.”
Local expert Kristine De Bree, a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, a specific type of therapy, also discussed the importance of being able to have a conversation around the subject, which in and of itself can be a challenge due to the stigma attached to mental health.
“This of course can often be a triggering and very sensitive topic,” De Bree said. “What is important to understand is that suicidality exists on a continuum... where an individual is on that continuum determines the type of treatment and the level of care that needs to be sought out.”
Essentially, everyone is different, she said, which means that the ability to have a conversation with a mental health professional is vital, but it’s also important to make sure that a person seeking help is getting it from someone trained to help with a specific problem.
One thing the experts agree on: There’s no onesize-fits-all approach to mental health.
“It is imperative to have proper evaluation by a trained professional,” De Bree said, “in order to determine the appropriate and necessary level of care.”
Students walk by hundreds of lanterns in the Honor Grove at College of the Canyons for the Shine a Light event on suicide prevention. COC has lost eight students to suicide in the last six years, according to officials.
Larry Schallert, assistant director of Student Health & Wellness/Mental Health Program and chair of the Santa Clarita Valley Suicide Prevention, PostVention and Wellness Committee talks during a discussion among committee members from different agencies at College of the Canyons in Valencia in January 2018.