Lifting the Veil
Baltimore magazine|May 2020
A landmark depression-awareness program hopes to curb the rise in youth suicide rates.
Jane Marion

On a chilly January day at Archbishop Spalding High School in Severn, students are dressed in their standard-issue winter uniforms: chino skirts, white shirts, and black vests for the girls; black sweaters, red ties, and chino pants for the boys. Many days, the students also wear a coveted accessory: rubber wristbands—in blue, orange, red, green—bearing the emergency number for Anne Arundel Crisis Response. “I have a bunch at my house that sit with my jewelry,” says Spalding senior Alexandra Blunk. “Everyone always wears the bracelets—they’re a hit.”

While crisis wristbands might seem an odd hot accessory, the hotline bracelets are as much a necessity as a fashion statement.

Youth suicide was once rare, but among people ages 10 to 24, it’s on the rise—with an increase of 56 percent from 2007 to 2017 in the United States, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “One thing that happened is the opioid crisis,” says Dr. Karen Swartz, director of clinical and educational programs at the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center. Opioid use, explains Swartz, “unmasks or worsens mood symptoms in those with mood disorders”—and that can lead to suicide.

“The other thing that happened is all of the social media stuff,” continues Swartz. “There’s growing evidence that cyberbullying is linked to suicide risk, so it’s very concerning.”

Nowhere is that concern more pressing than in Anne Arundel County, where several years ago, a string of suicides, known as a “cluster” in social-science parlance, gave the chilling nickname “Suicide High” to an area school just down the road from Spalding.

Nationally, suicide is the second most common cause of death for 10 to 24-yearolds, and between 2007 and 2017, the suicide rate nearly tripled for children aged 10 to 14, according to the CDC report.

These staggering statistics are mirrored in Arundel County, where according to a study by the Anne Arundel County Department of Health, there were 76 suicide attempts and 42 deaths among youth ages 10-24 in the Severna Park area between 2012 and 2016.

Marcie Gibbons is a counselor at Spalding, where, six years ago, the school adopted a suicide awareness and prevention program designed by Swartz and others at the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center as a reaction to what was happening not only nationwide, but in the community. “Our administration is all about the holistic needs of the child, especially in our health and fitness class,” says Gibbons, a former hospice social worker. “This is just as important as teaching a kid CPR. They need to know the symptoms of mental illness. Mental health awareness has to be at the forefront—it’s just too scary.”

Twenty years ago, after a spate of teen suicides in the Baltimore area, Swartz, along with a small team, developed ADAP, the Adolescent Depression Awareness Program, a forward-thinking high-school curriculum to address an issue that could no longer be ignored. “In 1998, there were three suicides in the Baltimore area within a few months, which was obviously devastating for the Baltimore community and shook people into thinking that this was a real problem,” says Swartz, sitting in her Wolfe Street office in the heart of Hopkins' medical campus. “Leaders in the community came to us and said, ‘What are you going to do about it?’”

When Swartz visited one of the impacted schools, she recalls, “I was so struck by their willingness to learn, but by how little they knew—and these were well-educated people who didn’t understand depression and were really confused about how suicide could ever happen. It really underscored for me that we had to improve education.”

Over several years, Swartz, ADAP’s founder and director, and her cohorts, including several other psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses, applied their expert clinical and research skills, visited area schools, and worked with high-school faculty and students to develop and refine the material.

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