SALT LAKE CITY — As a parent who helped his children navigate their teenage years, Barry Rose admits it can be hard to differentiate between adolescent angst and the emergence of a more pressing problem.
As a licensed clinical social worker, Rose says changes in behavior, even subtle differences, may indicate a more pressing issue.
"What the professionals would say, what we would say, is you look for changes in patterns, changes in behavior, increased isolation, increased anger, difficulties with relationships or difficulties in school. It’s the normal kinds of things you would think of," said Rose, a seasoned crisis worker.
Then, parents need to engage their child in conversation and reach out for professional help, he said.
"It’s trying to communicate, getting your kids to communicate more about what they’re feeling, which is really tough these days," said Rose, crisis services manager for University Neuropsychiatric Institute.
In recent weeks, adolescent boys ages 14 to 16 have been in a number of high-profile incidents along the Wasatch Front involving firearms and other weapons.
Rose said he does not "pretend to have the answers" regarding the recent spate of events, but "there just seems to be more extreme behavior."
"I know when I was growing up, we all had our problems and that sort of thing. Things like suicide and guns and all that kind of stuff were never even an option. We never would have even thought of a lot of that," he said.
A 14-year-old boy was charged with attempted murder after shooting a 16-year-old boy in the head and then again after he fell on the ground on the campus of Union Middle School on Oct. 25. Police say the shooting was tied to a dispute over a girl. The older boy survived the shooting.
A 16-year-old boy was charged with attempting to kill five of his classmates at Mountain View High School in Orem in a locker room rampage on Nov. 15. He also attempted to stab himself.
On Thursday morning, a 15-year-old boy brought two guns to Mueller Park Junior High in Bountiful and fired a shotgun into a classroom ceiling before he was apprehended by his own parents, police said. The parents went to the school after they became concerned about his behavior earlier in the day and discovered that guns were missing from their home.
Teenage years are tough, Rose said, and "kids don’t have a lot of emotional maturity so they can’t handle a lot of these stressful situations that happen these days. I think there’s a lot more stress on kids because of the social media issues, all that kind of stuff."
In the past, many cultures observed rights of passage that were supported by their respective communities, Rose said.
"There really isn’t anything like that any more. What do kids do now? They do outrageous stuff to try to separate themselves from being a child. A lot of those things are not safe behaviors. If they don’t have good social skills and the ability to manage stress, with all of those high emotional peaks that they get in, they can do dangerous things," he said.
It is important to remember, however, that these events are not the norm and schools are generally safe places where far more "great stuff" happens, Rose said.
It is important, too, that Utah students know there are resources available to them 24/7 via the SafeUT cellphone app, he said.
The free app provides youths confidential and anonymous two-way communication with crisis counselors at the University Neuropsychiatric Institute. The app also can be used to submit tips to school staff if a student is aware of a threat or a person who needs help.
The app, funded by the Utah Legislature, was launched in early 2016.
"We’ve had a pretty good, robust response so far. Over time, once we get all the schools enrolled, we’re going to go back and really work on creating the safe environment and an awareness for kids to use it more," Rose said.
"We’re up to over 1,000 a month of new individual texts. The interesting thing with texting, you can actually see the conversation back and forth because it’s there in writing. With 1,000 live chats, texts and tips, there’s close to 15,000 exchanges back and forth in conversations."
University Neuropsychiatric Institute has operated telephone crisis lines for several years, but licensed social workers have long understood that many youths were not comfortable talking on the phone, let alone confiding in an adult they considered a stranger.
"But they can text in and really talk about very sensitive, very emotional things. It’s been a really great learning experience for us, too. We’re seeing a lot of great results," Rose said.
Anyone who does not have the app can call the CrisisLine at 801-587-3000.