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My Turn: In Bow, here’s how we’re working to prevent youth suicide

House Bill 1588 would require New Hampshire school districts to provide suicide prevention education. In the Bow School District we have been working on protocols for suicide prevention, intervention and postvention for more than five years. Suicide is one of the more common causes of death among youth, and addressing it as a school district has been an increasing priority for Bow after experiencing a number of suicides involving students, graduates, parents and community members.

Similar to other areas of school safety and security, we have developed protocols and trained staff about what to do if a person communicates orally or in writing that they want to hurt themselves or others. We encourage our community members to take all such reports seriously and to refer the person to the identified appropriate staff member for evaluation, risk assessment and further action. Our identified staff members are trained in protocols for determining the level of active risk and then for referring the student to family, medical facilities or other outside organizations as appropriate.

We have done a lot of training with our students, staff and community to raise awareness of the issue and also to allow people to name it. There is a stigma about suicide, and talking about the issue openly allows us to better prevent and intervene. Using euphemisms or trying to be sensitive by talking around the subject makes it harder to address suicide effectively. Speaking clearly about suicide allows people who are struggling to be able to come forward and get help. It also allows friends to come forward and talk openly about concerns they may have about a fellow student.

We have also addressed issues of postvention – actions to take after a suicide to effectively deal with the emotions and issues that surround this type of death. We have grappled with how to deal with the media and community honestly while protecting privacy rights of families. We have discussed the appropriate role of tributes or memorials and how they may need to be different in the case of suicide. We have discussed how social media influences our decisions and how little control we have in these situations of how people will react.

It is never easy to have these conversations and to plan for such an emotional issue, but it is much easier to have those conversations without the immediacy of a recent suicide causing us to go into crisis planning. Our school safety plans involve fire drills, lock-downs for active shooters and planning for other school emergencies. Statistically we are much more likely to have to respond to a suicide or other sudden death. Planning in advance and being aware of the excellent research available on how to respond is a good thing. NAMI NH has been an excellent resource for us, and we also find that we have local champions who are willing to help us as their own lives have been touched by suicide. There is a cost to do such things, but we feel that suicide prevention is, and should be, part of our overall crisis and safety planning process.

(Dean S.T. Cascadden is superintendent of the Bow School District.)

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