Painful days lead to a moment to celebrate for families affected by suicide

  • Lawmakers and family members watch as Gov. Chris Sununu signs Senate Bill 282 into law in the Executive Council chambers on Friday.

  • Martha Dickey greets New Hamphsire Governor Chris Sununu along with her husband Paul (center) and Holly Fenn on Friday, August 2, 2019 as the governor gets ready to sign SB 282 in the Executive Councilors chambers at the State House. The bill will mandate that schools provide training on recognizing the warning signs for suicide and prevention. The Dickeys lost their Jason to suicide in 2017 and Fenn lost her son Dalton to suicide in 2009. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu recognizes former chief justice John Broderick as greets the crowd at the signing of Senate Bill 282 into law on Friday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Martha Dickey applauds the lawmakers and New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu on their efforts to pass SB 282 in the Executive Coucil chambers on Friday, August 2, 2019. The bill will mandate that schools provide training on recognizing the warning signs for suicide and prevention. The Dickeys lost their Jason to suicide in 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Martha Dickey hugs New Hampshire State Rep. Gates Lucas of Sunapee after Gov. Chris Sununu signed Senate Bill 282 into law in the Executive Council chambers Friday. The Dickeys lost their son Jason to suicide in 2017. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 8/2/2019 6:50:14 PM

After years of pressure from lawmakers, mental health organizations and families who have lost loved ones, schools in New Hampshire are now required to provide suicide prevention training to staff and create policies for responding to student suicides.

“I know I speak for many people in saying it’s been a long time and at times a painful wait for this bill to come to fruition and to see suicide prevention education in New Hampshire become law,” said Ken Norton, executive director of NAMI-NH in the Executive Council chambers in the State House on Friday. “Today is certainly a day to celebrate.”

“Teachers play an important role as first responders in recognizing youth who may be at risk for suicide,” he added. “We believe this legislation, and a focus on social and emotional learning, will better prepare students to recognize when their peers need help.”

SB 282, signed into law Friday by Gov. Chris Sununu, will mandate that schools provide training on recognizing the warning signs for suicide and effective prevention strategies not only for teachers, but for all staff members, such as food service employees, janitors and volunteers. Schools will have to create policies for responding to teen suicides to prevent contagion, or copycat deaths, in a community.

SB 282 was a combination of the best pieces of several bills that were brought forward this legislative session, including HB 652, the Jason Flatt Act, a bill sponsored by a national organization that promotes yearly online suicide prevention training for teachers, Sununu said.

Sununu said the increased interest in passing a bill on suicide prevention in education shows how much progress has been made around the issue.

“We are clearly moving in the right direction on a lot of these issues,” he said. “There’s momentum, there’s discussion, we’re breaking down the stigma of talking about this. You can’t say that was the case even a few years ago.”

The governor said a lot of the momentum behind the legislation came from families who reached out to him and testified on various suicide-prevention bills. One of those people was Martha Dickey, whom the governor mentioned several times during his remarks Friday.

Dickey, who lives in Boscawen, approached Sununu after she lost her 19-year-old son Jason to suicide in September 2017.

“This is about making the training available and letting kids know that they can talk about how they’re feeling and they feel safe doing so,” Dickey said. “It’s always been about helping other kids, making a difference for one person.”

Dickey was standing behind Sununu as he signed the bill. He handed her the blue pen he used to sign the legislation as a keepsake for her efforts, which she clutched tightly while wiping tears from her eyes.

“It really was emotional, it was an emotionally charged room,” she said afterward. “It’s coming up on two years on Jason, it’s been 23 months. But this has given us a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”

Holly Fenn, who lost her 14-year-old son Dalton to suicide in 2009 in Bow, was also feeling a mix of emotions Friday as she watched Sununu sign the bill.

“Knowing what happened today can save future children means everything to me,” she said. “If this had been in place 10 years ago, my son might be here. It’s a joyful occasion, just to know this will stop other families from experiencing what our family has experienced.”

Fenn started a foundation, Reach1Teach1Love1, where she visits schools to speak with students about suicide. She said she’s been surprised through her work at how early kids want and need to be having conversations about mental health.

Amanda Fontaine, a suicide attempt survivor and professor at the University of New Hampshire, said it’s important for prevention efforts to start early. Fontaine, now 29, was in college when she tried to take her life, and she said she wished she had learned better coping strategies during middle and high school that could have helped her during that time.

“I see a lot of students who come to college who experience crises related to transitions, it’s a very turbulent time for a lot of people. That’s not the best intervention point to recognize signs of suicide, signs of mental health distress,” she said. “It’s really important that you start learning what that looks like and how to respond to that at a younger age so that when they get to me, they already have the skills to help themselves and help their peers.”

Mental health advocates have been trying for years to pass a bill like SB 282 in the New Hampshire Legislature. An earlier effort to pass a bill requiring suicide prevention in schools failed in 2013.

Tara Ball, of Exeter, who lost her 14-year-old son Connor to suicide in 2011, worked on that bill. After it didn’t pass, she channeled her grief into starting an organization called Connor’s Climb that provides a nationally recognized suicide prevention program, Signs of Suicide, in New Hampshire schools for free. She said she’s looking forward to seeing more districts be able to make changes in the way they approach teaching about mental health.

“All those efforts come full circle today,” Ball said.

There is no funding attached to SB 282. School districts will be in charge of funding and implementing trainings on their own. Many in the state already have, and Norton said he hopes this bill will be motivate for others.

“I think many schools want to do this, they recognize the need to, and I think this gives them a way to say to school boards and superintendents, ‘We want to do this,’ ” Norton said.

He said one concern is how school districts that need help funding the programs will be supported.

Sununu said SB 282 is just a first step in the process of integrating suicide prevention into school districts.

“I think as we go forward with this program, we’ll be able to hear from teachers, we’ll be able to hear from students, we’ll be able to hear more from the community about what is working and what isn’t, maybe where we can grow and shift direction and we have to do that,” he said. “It isn’t that we sign a piece of legislation and we pat ourselves on the back and move on, by no means. It’s just a first step. There’s still a lot more work to do.”




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