Henry Loomis loved Hawaiian shirts, wore a constant smile and had a ready willingness to help fellow students.
The 17-year-old was set to be a senior at Duluth East High School this fall, and one of the leaders of the school’s Daredevils robotics team. In July he took his own life, according to family and friends.
“When he died, no strings seemed tied; nothing matched up,” said classmate and senior Nancy Swanson.
Loomis was friends with everybody, said teammate Anna Karas, and laughed at “any joke.”
“Whenever I looked at him, I thought, ‘that kid has it together,’ ” she said.
Loomis was the second loss to suicide for the 2016 East senior class; the first was in 2013. Students are struggling with the deaths, and have mobilized to ask for more mental health help at the school and more communication about what already exists. East’s student group Executive Board started a change.org petition asking for such resources, and as of Friday it had garnered nearly 700 signatures.
“The petition was to get the conversation started about what we have and what we need,” said senior Jude Goossens - based not just on what’s happened at East, but also elsewhere within the district.
Not many students know what mental health and counseling services are out there, and what exists is lacking, he said, for the number of kids at East and the wide range of needs teens have.
“As teens, we are emotionally volatile creatures. One little thing knocks you down. Then it’s that much easier for something else to knock you down even lower,” Goossens said.
‘High school is overwhelming’
East has three guidance counselors and, like most Duluth schools, a partnership with an outside mental health agency to serve students who have been referred by district staff or parents and have parental consent. There are nurses, psychologists and social workers employed by the district in various schools - some have more than others based on need - and all teachers are required by the state to get updated training on the signs and symptoms of early onset mental illness in youth.
But that’s not common knowledge, some students say, and not enough. They also would like more teachers to be willing to talk about a tragedy in class when something happens.
“High school is overwhelming, with many layers of stress. And we’ve got three people to talk to for the entire school” of nearly 1,700 kids, said senior Jacob Kowalczak, referring to the guidance counselors.
Some students said the referral process and parental consent needed to see someone from an outside agency at the school is good for students who need long-term care - but not for others who may just need someone to talk to on any given day.
Swanson said help with “little” problems is good to have, too, because they add up, and can snowball into more serious issues. And most students don’t look to guidance counselors for anything beyond academic needs, Kowalczak said.
There is a difference between support for serious mental health problems and those dealing with emotions and behaviors, said Mike Meyer, mental health coordinator for the district.
The Arrowhead Psychological Clinic has office space at East for psychologists - two last year, including a doctoral-candidate intern - who saw between 25 and 40 students. Other agencies work in schools elsewhere in the district. The services are covered by a family’s insurance or medical assistance, but most of the district partners have a sliding fee scale for those without.
Meyer has recently met with students to talk about other needs, including the everyday support they want. Ideas include training peer mentors so they can point students to resources - such as the suicide-prevention TXT4Life service - and tapping into students training for psychological and counseling careers at the College of St. Scholastica and the University of Minnesota Duluth. There are liability issues to consider, along with appropriate use, he said, “but I think it’s realistic to address some of their concerns.”
East Principal Laurie Knapp said most students probably aren’t aware of the agency services at the school, because it’s a discreet offering for those directed or referred to it. Seeing guidance counselors as something other than an academic adviser would help those students who want someone to talk to on a more casual basis, she said, because they are trained in other ways.
“The biggest piece is education,” she said, about what kids can find in school and outside of school. Representatives of TXT4Life - a program that allows students to use text messaging to seek help - came to East last year, and there is talk of having them return.
Educating students about resources “is going to be huge for us this fall,” Knapp said.
Budget plays a part
The students’ perception of need matters, said Sue Abderholden, executive director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Minnesota.
“If kids feel they don’t have help or don’t know where to go,” it’s an important issue to address, she said. And parents as well as kids need to be educated about where to find help and about signs and symptoms of possible problems. Duluth’s setup for mental health services makes sense, Abderholden said, because parents do need to give permission for treatment. Medical records should also be kept separately from educational records, she said, which can be done through the service of the outside agencies who see students at the schools.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 24 nationwide, said Gina Dixon, program manager for Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center Grief Support Services.
The state health department’s 2013 Minnesota Student Survey showed that in St. Louis County more than 30 percent each of female eighth-, ninth- and 11th-graders and about 20 percent each of males in each of those grades surveyed had felt significantly depressed or hopeless within the year of the survey. Similar numbers were given for feelings of anxiety and panic. Between 12 percent and 20 percent of girls in those age groups, and between 7 and 10 percent of boys, reported seriously considering suicide.
“The kids who get the support know how to reach out,” said Casey Ladd, director of Child and Family Services for Duluth’s Human Development Center. “So many kids I see who I think are in trouble ... it’s hard for them to trust that adults can be there for them or that people can understand them.”
The Human Development Center has clinicians co-located in several Duluth school district elementary schools for students who are referred to their services. Last year, she said, hundreds of students received services. Longtime teachers will tell you, she said, that the number of students unable to regulate their behavior has increased, and therapists see kids who both externalize and internalize their problems.
But teachers shouldn’t be expected to provide mental health care, Ladd said, even though many are pressed into the social work and therapy role as budgets shrink. While the American School Counselor Association recommends 250 students to 1 counselor, Minnesota’s ratio is 755 to 1. East’s is slightly better than that, with about 550 students per counselor.
Superintendent Bill Gronseth said the district’s partnerships with outside agencies - a model used in many large school districts - is a way to use community resources for mental health while allowing kids to stay in the building. Hiring more school counselors, for example, would mean making decisions about what to cut elsewhere.
East senior Sanna Berdahl said she would choose more counseling services over lower classroom sizes, for example.
“If you’re not in a healthy mental state, there is no way you’ll be able to focus no matter the size of your class,” she said.
Breaking down stigmas
East teacher and robotics coach Tim Velner said his tightly knit team is reeling from grief, with students racking their brains and struggling to recall if there were signs that Loomis was in crisis.
“Silence is the biggest problem,” Velner said. “We’ve gone over this countless times … we don’t know why.”
Students understand budget constraints, several said last week during a conversation in the East cafeteria, and if the district or school can’t afford to hire more counseling help, they at least want more communication on a regular basis about what is available.
It’s understood that educators don’t want to “glorify” suicide, for example, Goossens said, but talking about it can help break down the stigma associated with mental health issues, and get more students with problems to reach out.
Dealing with the deaths of fellow students, and what can be done going forward, “I didn’t want to think about it. I don’t want to think about not seeing your beautiful faces,” Swanson said with emotion to the other students around the table. But mental health “needs to start being talked about.”
Find the students' petition here.
A sampling of community resources for youths - and others - in need of mental health services:
- Amberwing Center for Youth and Family Well-Being: This partial-hospital day program serves people up to age 25, offering several types of mental health therapy, along with support for family and friends. (218) 355-2100.
- TXT4Life: A crisis outlet reached via texting “life” to 61222.
- St. Mary’s Grief Support Services through Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center. Groups for grieving youth begin in October, and the adult family member suicide support group meets the third Monday of each month from 7-8:30 p.m. at the medical center in Duluth. Call (218) 786-4402.
- Essentia Health 24-hour crisis line is (218) 723-0099.
- St. Luke’s Mental Health: (218) 249-5326 inpatient and (218) 249-7000 outpatient.
- Human Development Center: (218) 728-4491; Minnesota crisis line: (800) 634-8775 (toll free); Wisconsin crisis line: (715) 395-2259.
- Range Mental Health Center: (800) 450-2273.
- Douglas County Health & Human Services-Mental Health crisis line: (715) 392-8216.
- Fond du Lac Human Services Behavioral Health crisis line: (218) 348-1817.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255.