Urgent mental health tips surge in NC schools during pandemic

In just two years, a new app is helping North Carolina students in crisis.

Video Transcript

REBECCA MABE: How's it going, ladies? You doing all right?

JONAH KAPLAN: Rebecca Mabe's job might require her to carry a gun but this Union Pines High student resource officer, she wants her students to know that her most powerful weapon.

REBECCA MABE: What are you worried about?

JONAH KAPLAN: Is her ability to listen. They want to be heard.

REBECCA MABE: Yes.

JONAH KAPLAN: What do they want to say?

REBECCA MABE: That they're lonely, that they're sad. That they want things to get back to normal. They want to be able to have their friends and their school family and be able to come here day in and day out and learn and grow, and be safe.

JONAH KAPLAN: North Carolina public schools hoping to amplify those voices statewide, through the Say Something Anonomous reporting system. The flagship program from Sandy Hook Promise. The organization founded by the grieving parents of the 2012 massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.

Here's how it works. Submit a tip via the app, a website, or phone call. They all go to the same place. Crisis counselors on the other end answering in real time, 24/7, even continuing the conversation. At the same time, those counselors chatting with a designated point team at each school, usually an SRO, a nurse, or other faculty.

REBECCA MABE: We had a student that reached out about another student that was just saying that they couldn't do it anymore and that they were in their own way saying goodbye to several different friends. When that student felt the only answer they were getting was the goodbye, they immediately reached out through the app to let us know that something was going on and that they needed somebody to get there fast to help him.

JONAH KAPLAN: Did that tip save his life?

REBECCA MABE: Yes. I feel like it did. And it opened his eyes to the fact that he wasn't alone, that he had people that cared about him. I just told him, I said, I mean, I hope you're feeling the love. I'm here at 1:00 in the morning. I mean, I'm here for you.

JONAH KAPLAN: You went in the middle of the night.

REBECCA MABE: Absolutely.

JONAH KAPLAN: This tip came in at night, at the middle of the night.

REBECCA MABE: Absolutely. And most of the ones we get are late at night.

JONAH KAPLAN: An ABC 11 I-Team investigation also finding that in this COVID-19 pandemic, most of the tips coming through are also more urgent. Sandy Hook Promise reporting a 77% increase in the rate of life safety tips in North Carolina since March 2020. A life safety tip is a designation from counselors that at least one life is in imminent danger.

The top five tips coming through, bullying cutting or self-harm, suicide, depression, and drug use. Across the country, the I-Team uncovering data showing the trends consistent, and even worse. Schools using the app in Houston and the New York area, a 44% increase in the rate of life safety tips.

Across Pennsylvania, another state using the system statewide, 118%. San Francisco, where many schools have yet to open, a 144% surge in the rate of life safety tips. Altogether, a national average of a 133% spike in how often a counselor considers a student's life is in imminent danger.

NICOLE HOCKLEY: I'm an eternal optimist, and I have to say, I'm actually very nervous about this year's return to school.

JONAH KAPLAN: Nicole Hockley is the co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise. Her son Dylan, killed at Sandy Hook, today, would be a teenager.

NICOLE HOCKLEY: I think during COVID most schools have been fantastic about figuring out how to stop the spread of COVID within their schools through physical measures of distancing, masks, barriers, Plexiglass. I don't think enough attention has been given to mental health support for kids.

JONAH KAPLAN: Hockley, also warning that many tips now might be going underreported, without friends being around each other to recognize a red flag.

NICOLE HOCKLEY: Talk to your kid. Talk to them. Don't just leave them in their room or in their basement on the computer looking at their schoolwork. Work alongside them. Be connected and communicate with them regularly. Be that trusted adult for your child.

REBECCA MABE: I'm used to walking in hallways where there's always kids.

JONAH KAPLAN: For officer Mabe, she's eager to be that trusted adult too, and she won't let a mask hide her smile when the halls are bustling again.

REBECCA MABE: Through your eyes, through your words, through your actions.

REBECCA MABE: Y'all have a good one. Good to see you.

JONAH KAPLAN: There are now nearly 500,000 students in North Carolina and counting, trained to use this Say Something Anonomous reporting system. Our coverage continuing online. You can watch our full interviews with the SROs and Sandy Hook Promise. Learn the warning signs, the red flags to recognize.

Plus, go behind the scenes into the crisis center and learn more about this amazing system helping protect our children. It's on our website. Check out this story ABC11.com. Jonah Kaplan, ABC 11 Eyewitness News.