School counselors play a vital role as suicide rates among young people rise

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(WDTV) — Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. among young people ages 10 to 24.

That’s according to the most recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"The biggest thing is getting kids to open up about it, and not be terrified," said. Rick Gerlach.

Gerlach is a school counselor for 9th and 10th graders at East Fairmont High School.

With CDC reports showing a rise in suicide rates among teens, Gerlach plays a vital role.

"Sometimes people say, 'well it just kind of happened out of left field,'" Gerlach said "But there are signs, and it's educating your staff of the things to look for."

Gerlach says, when needed, school staff work with local mental health professionals to get students more outside help.

"Luckily, in Marion County, we're fortunate because we do have Valley Health Care, we have United Summit Center, and a number of other services that are available that some more rural areas don't have the opportunity."

One factor affecting young people's mental well-being is dealing with family members involved with opioids.

"The world is definitely a little bit different than it was in the past," Gerlach said "The opioid issue is a problem, because you have a combination of kids that are left to their own devices or kids that are in very chaotic and unstable homes and feeling like there isn't anything good left for them or that they need an escape."

Gerlach says pervasive social media also has an impact on students' mental health.

"When I went to school, if I had a problem with someone or was getting bullied, I could go home and reset, but now, with social media, kids can't really get away from that; and it can snowball from there and have a greater impact than it once did."

But social media can also alert counselors to a problem.

"Kids are more open seemingly on social media, so a lot of times that's what we're alerted of," Gerlach said. "A kid posts something on Instagram or Snapchat that a friend is worried about, so a lot of times that's a big key for us to go check on them and get them help."

Most importantly, Gerlach says, counselors provide an open, non-judgmental place for students to be heard.

"Sometimes kids just need to be heard, and you view their problems as serious, that's what we like to do here."