Finding Hope: Successful school programs and legislative failures

Monitor staff
Published: 10/21/2018 11:00:30 PM

In one program, a video vignette shows two boys with backpacks standing outside blue lockers in a middle school. One yells at the other, saying he’s failing all of his classes, he’s been feeling angry about everything lately and he’s fighting a lot with his parents.

“I hate my life, and nothing is going to change,” he says.

In another, participants step into the roles of science teachers, bus drivers, guidance counselors and police officers in interactive scenarios where they try to determine whether a student is at risk for suicide based on warning signs he or she is exhibiting. 

These are two pieces of the most prevalent suicide prevention programs used in New Hampshire schools, called “Signs of Suicide” and “Connect.”

Although the state requires by law that schools provide information on suicide prevention to their students, there is no specific source of funding given to schools to address that. The state Bureau of Student Wellness offers guidance to schools that come to them for advice. They don’t check in to make sure schools are teaching about mental health. Signs of Suicide (SOS) and Connect are provided by nonprofits – NAMI NH and Connor’s Climb – that work to be able to offer schools the proper training and education for free or at little cost. 

Connect 

Connect, run by NAMI NH, is a systematic approach to suicide prevention. 

Connect trainers from NAMI help schools develop protocols for how to respond to students who appear to be at risk, and how to promote healthy resources and dialogue after a student death. 

The Connect trainers usually teach two faculty members at each school how to continue training new teachers. They also host refresher programs for experienced ones. 

Connect has youth leader programs, used at high schools like Exeter, Bow and Franklin, where students teach school communities to recognize warning signs in students, and connect them to the proper resources. 

Signs of Suicide 

The SOS program focuses on three keywords – acknowledge, care, tell – and uses video scenarios to teach students how and when to go to a trusted adult if they notice a friend might be struggling.

“We then follow up with conversations of, ‘What are the different situations in people’s lives that get them feeling that way where they just feel so hopeless, and what can we do?’” said Mark Ciarametaro, a guidance counselor at Merrimack Valley High School, where SOS is used in freshman health classes. “It’s definitely fruitful in producing some conversations that needed to happen.” 

A screening program consists of a list of seven questions to determine whether a student may be at risk.

It asks whether students have thought about killing themselves, whether they have tried to kill themselves in the last year, as well as if they feel like they have a lack of energy or self-esteem.

If a student seems at risk, they are set up to meet with a guidance counselor that day. 

SOS has been implemented in 50 middle and high schools throughout New Hampshire, fully funded by the Connor’s Climb Foundation, an organization founded by Tara Ball, the mother of Connor Ball, who was a freshman at Exeter High School when he took his life in 2011.

And it works: The SOS Program has shown a reduction in self-reported suicide attempts by 40 and 64 percent, according to a 2016 University of Connecticut study.

‘Fiscal concerns and fear’

In 2014, mental health advocates and families of those lost to suicide tried to pass a bill in the State House that would have required every school district to create a policy for teaching on warning signs and healthy coping strategies, and it was turned down by a vote on the House floor.

Ann Duckless, of NAMI NH, an organization that supported the bill, said it was shut down because of fiscal concerns and fear. 

“I think there was a lot of that misinformation and people thinking, ‘If you talk about it, kids will do it,’” Duckless said.

NAMI NH supports staff trainers at more than 100 schools in the state, but a high turnover rate of teachers makes it hard to find someone who will maintain the training in each district, Duckless said. Although 75 percent have implemented protocols for handling suicidal students, she estimated that only 30 to 40 percent of trainers are active.

She is able to keep track of the trainers that reach back out to her for resources.

“It’s tough – we aren’t able to keep track of our trainers unless they’re keeping track of us,” she said.

Around 20 states have mandated training for suicide prevention for staff. The closest New Hampshire has made it is Senate Bill 33, which mandates the recertification of mental health providers in suicide prevention training for two hours every two years.

“Where do schools refer individuals at risk? They refer them to mental health providers,” Duckless said. “It’s certainly better than nothing.”

 

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If you or someone you know might be at risk for suicide, contact The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.

For additional resources, visit NAMI New Hampshire's Connect Program at www.theconnectprogram.org.




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