Classmates mourn Hamilton High freshman The Chandler Arizonan

Classmates mourn Hamilton High freshman

Classmates mourn Hamilton High freshman
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ARIZONAN NEWS STAFF

Friends of a Hamilton High School freshman who took his life March 5 raised funds to memorialize him earlier this month.

Zachary McNamee, 14, is the latest East Valley student to die by suicide, which has claimed the lives of more than 40 teens in Gilbert, Chandler, Queen Creek, Mesa and Tempe since July 2017.

The Chandler Unified School District notified students and parents of Zach’s passing March 6 in a letter which also listed local grief counseling resources.

“Our thoughts and sympathies are with the McNamee family during this difficult time,” the district’s letter states. “As a community, we are grieving this tremendous loss.”

News of Zachary’s death came the day before Hamilton’s students were about to depart for a two-week spring break. Yet, the district still dispatched a crisis team to the campus and provided counseling for any students needing help.

“We want to offer the Hamilton community numerous resources available during spring intersession,” the letter added, before listing guidelines for how parents can help youth overcome grief.

Some of those tips include establishing daily routines, spotting changes in a child’s physical appearance, and allowing youth a chance to discuss their fears.

A few days after Zachary’s death, his friends started a GoFundMe.com page to raise money for a special memorial service.

“Zach was always an optimistic person and kept a smile on no matter how dull the days were,” the GoFundMe page stated.

His friends went on to describe McNamee as “outgoing” and expressed a hint of guilt for his sudden death.

“We as his closest friends have let him down and failed to be there for him when he needed it the most,” the page states, “like when he was always there for us – when we needed it.”

As of last week, the page had collected more than $7,000 in donations.

Mental health has become a growing concern in Chandler schools since a series of teen suicides have been reported in recent years around the region.

On a statewide level, Arizona reported 12.4 teens per 100,000 suicide deaths in 2018 – a much higher rate than the national average of 8.9 teens per every 100,000, according to the United Health Foundation.

Local lawmakers have responded to the statistics by passing legislation to expand access to mental health resources and Chandler Unified formed a new department dedicated exclusively to counseling services.

As of last school year, however, a new state Auditor General’s report said last week, the district’s per-pupil spending for counseling and related services was well below the statewide average and the per-pupil spending by districts of comparable size.

All high school students now have numbers to crisis hotlines on the backs of their identification badges. Stickers advertising suicide prevention have been posted inside Chandler’s school buses.

As part of this ongoing push to improve mental health, Hamilton High recently created a “mindfulness” room on its campus for students needing to take a timeout from the stresses of the school day.

Chandler Unified has additionally tried increasing its staff by adding more social workers at each campus so guidance counselors have more time and resources dedicated to mental health needs.

Mental health experts often describe teen suicides as a complex phenomenon not prompted by one singular reason. Some common warning signs can be extreme social withdrawals, slowed thinking and a decreased interest in school, according to the Mayo Clinic.

In appearances before the Chandler Unified and other East Valley school boards early last year and late 2018, students talked of the pressures driving classmates to consider or complete suicide.

To a large extent, those pressures are driven by social media, which has intensified a feeling of isolation.

But those pressures also include a drive to succeed academically and/or socially as well as bullying and substance abuse.

Last year, the valedictorian of Chandler High School’s 2018 graduation class took his life. Around the same time, a 13-year-old Mesa girl died by suicide.

Zach’s obituary describes the 14-year-old as a “bright” student who enjoyed socializing with his friends every day.

“He brought smiles, laughter and love to all his family and friends,” his obituary stated. “He will be missed and will forever be in the hearts of his family and friends.”

Chandler education and suicide-prevention advocate Katey McPherson posted on social media Zach’s death should be a wake-up call.

“For all of us, this should signal the long runway of silent struggle continuing to plague our community youth,” she wrote. “It’s the corner of hopelessness and overwhelmed. A corner all of us have stood upon.

“This isn’t solely a school issue, a parent issue, a so and so issue. It’s a local and national health crisis and a desperate cry for help. A systemic failure.”

McPherson also encouraged people to contribute “to these children who are seeking to give their friend a proper memorial.”

She also urged people who wanted to join her effort to message her on Facebook. 

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