Mental health advocates ask for more suicide prevention training

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AUSTIN (Nexstar) — As part of an ongoing conversation related to school safety and mental health in Texas youth, legislators are considering several bills related to suicide prevention. The hearing over these efforts at the Texas State Capitol followed three recent suicides linked to the school shootings in Parkland and Newtown. 

“We need to talk about this in a very holistic way,” Alissa Sughrue, policy coordinator with NAMI Texas, said. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the third leading cause of death among Texas youth ages 10-24. One in eight high school students in the state reported a suicide attempt in the past year, which is almost twice the national average.

House Bill 3411, filed by Rep. Steve Allison, R-San Antonio, would require school districts in Texas to develop a plan for suicide prevention, intervention and postvention as part of their ongoing efforts to help student mental health. The bill includes activities that promote healing necessary to reduce the risk of suicide by a person affected by another individual’s suicide as part of postvention work. 

“A lot of schools don’t know how to approach it appropriately and sometimes that can cause further trauma or cause additional suicides — copycat suicides,” Sughrue said. 

Large celebrations of life around a student who has died, for example, can send a confusing message to students, especially those who may be at risk, Sughrue said. 

“There are good intentions there, but you need to make sure how you talk about it with students doesn’t lead to a contagious situation. Suicide can be contagious and can often happen in clusters if it’s not addressed the right way.” 

Rep. Allison’s bill would also require districts to set procedures to support a student’s return to school after hospitalization or residential treatment for a mental health condition, substance abuse or suicide prevention. 

Brendan Brown intervened in a suicide attempt six years ago, when he was a freshman in high school. He recalls his friend as a charismatic guy and says that made it hard to tell something was going on.

“[But there] were shifting personalities and a lot of warning signs that I could luckily tell and fear for his safety,” he said. “I was 15 at the time so I immediately went to my parents. We called hotlines and got answering machines and had to resort to 911.”

Brown is now a college sophomore and keeps in touch with his friend from high school. But he says the increased attention on suicide prevention ideas shows how much Texas needs this policy.

“I think that everybody involved in schools needs to have a bare minimum on suicide awareness, students involved,” he said. “The bill really just highlights the need for training from teachers and just a baseline level of knowledge that can impact and help a lot of kids.”

House Bill 3235, authored by Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos, D-Richardson, would require suicide prevention training for all educators at least once every two years. Current statute only requires the training to be provided on an annual basis as part of new employee orientation or to new school district and open-enrollment charter school educators.  

Merily Keller lost her son to suicide in 2000 and now works to educate communities on prevention with the Texas Suicide Prevention Council. Both bills, she said, can help districts be proactive about a student’s environment and mental health. 

“We don’t want any more of these deaths,” she said. “We need to come together where communities, parents, educators, schools, faith leaders all work together to prevent suicide because we can make a difference and we can save lives.” 

“Intervening in a crisis isn’t just one time, you learn about it and you’re done,” Sughrue said. “It’s a journey. It’s a continuous conversation on how to help students stay safe.”

House Bill 2997, filed by Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, is also aimed at suicide prevention. The bill requires suicide prevention training as part of staff development. Each school district and open-enrollment charter school would have to provide training aligned with the Texas Health and Safety Code each year for any employee who regularly interacts with students enrolled in the district or school. This training would also be made available online. 

A district or open-enrollment charter school may also develop a procedure for notifying a parent or guardian of a student identified as at risk of death by suicide within a reasonable amount of time after the identification of early warning signs as part of suicide prevention. 

Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale 

The Columbia Protocol, or the Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale (C-SSRS) is a tool developed to help decrease suicide risk among those suffering from depression. The suicide risk assessment is through a series of simple questions anyone can ask. The answers are used to identify whether an individual is at risk for suicide, assess the severity and immediacy of that risk and gauge the level of support the person needs.  

Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Pittsburgh, with support from the National Institute of Mental Health, developed the screening tool more than a decade ago for a study. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adopted the protocol’s definitions for suicidal behavior and recommends the Columbia Protocol as a method of collecting data on the issue. It’s now used in several different settings, including schools, hospitals and clinical trials. 

The Columbia Protocol’s website contains several different cards with the list of questions based on the setting and individual. You can find more information here. 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

People who are facing a suicidal crisis or emotional distress can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. More than 100 local crisis centers are a part of a national network working on this lifeline and are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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