Frann Wageneck, the assistant superintendent of Student Services at the Santa Barbara Unified School District, set out to conquer the silent beast. Shedding the stigma around depression by integrating social-emotional learning into schools became her mission. The number of teen suicide attempts began to drop once the district rolled out the Signs of Suicide (SOS) Program in 2018, a curriculum Wageneck implemented for middle and high schoolers that focuses on suicide awareness and skills to deal with depression and recognize the signs in others.
But now, as the coronavirus pandemic hit Santa Barbara, suicide rates have begun to rise again. The county’s Department of Behavioral Wellness confirmed that there has been an overall increase in suicides countywide since the month of April, and Cottage Hospital confirmed that there has also been an increase in teens admitted for suicide attempts since the shelter-in-place order went into effect.
When all county schools closed in March amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the eyes and ears of teachers and counselors were replaced by webcams in Zoom meetings. Students who already felt isolated may have had those feelings intensified. Others might be absorbing their parents’ pandemic-fueled financial strains, particularly when 58 percent of district families are already socioeconomically disadvantaged.
But Wageneck is determined. Social-emotional learning cannot fall on the wayside now. In fact, she believes it is more important than academia while schools remain closed.
“We are still here doing the same methods, but things are modified for this pandemic world,” Wageneck said. “We have a campaign to remind students, parents, and teachers about the signs of depression and what to do. We are creating videos to send out to schools and families.
Students are also continuing to see their therapists and counselors that they would normally meet with at school via Telehealth, and the district is continuing to give additional referrals.
“Counselors and therapists are really on the front lines,” Wageneck continued. “In grades 7-12, we had almost 900 student referrals for counseling and therapy this year.”