Utah schools adopt unified effort to prevent teen suicide
More than 30,000 Utah teachers, counselors and principals will begin training next month in hopes of improving a grim state statistic: Two youths are treated for attempting suicide every day.
The Legislature passed a law last year that requires educators, for the first time, to take suicide prevention training as part of recertification, which occurs every five years.
Educators will watch a 38-minute online video produced by state education officials on suicide prevention. Then, each district across Utah will conduct its own one-hour training.
In the past, schools have taken one of two approaches in their fight against teen suicides: Setting up their own crisis teams and awareness efforts for students, or not addressing the issue unless a suicide occurred, subscribing to the theory that saying too much about the subject would encourage more attempts.
Now, educators will use the same strategy at all schools, looking for ways to prevent the growing number of teen suicides.
In November, 14-year-old David Phan fatally shot himself in front of peers at Bennion Junior High. Nineteen Utah teens died by suicide in 2011, according to the Utah Medical Examiner's Office. Beehive State teens commit suicide more often than their peers in other parts of the nation, according to a 2011 report by the Utah Department of Health, which estimates two youths are treated for attempts every day.
Taryn Aiken, chairwoman of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's Utah chapter, said it's time for educators and students to talk candidly about the subject. She said the actual suicide rate is probably even higher because many suicides go unreported due to the stigma associated with taking one's own life.
Both Jordan and Davis school districts have begun the new suicide-prevention training, going beyond the minimal requirements to include custodians, food workers and bus drivers.
"It's a taboo topic," said Casey Layton, director of counseling at Davis schools, the second largest Utah district with more than 68,000 students. "[The new law] raises awareness of what resources are available. We don't need [teachers] to psychoanalyze kids but to ask questions and refer them."
The Utah Office of Education created the 38-minute video that highlights four key ideas: identifying behaviors that suggest a student may be at risk; steps that teachers and other personnel can take to ensure that students get help; resources for educators; and perspectives on the topic from Utah educators.
Most of the content comes from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which tells in documentary style the story of a mother with a depressed son who committed suicide and the effect it had on the family. The mother and experts talk about warning signals.
Moira Rynn, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, says in the video that more than 90 percent of students who die by suicide had a mental illness, such as clinical depression or bipolar disorder. Rynn said teachers and others can look for the following signs: changes in grades and/or interactions with peers, such as becoming isolated; changes in appetite and/or problems with sleep; changes in expressing their self-esteem, such as talking about feeling worthless, among others.
"This [video] will be the foundation piece," said Lillian Tsosie-Jensen, a comprehensive counseling and guidance program specialist, who spearheaded the video at the Utah Office of Education. "It brings up an awareness piece."
Lori Jones, counseling and guidance coordinator at Canyons School District, has shown the video to hundreds of administrators in the past couple of months. Canyons teachers will begin the suicide prevention program in February.
There are school psychologists at every Canyons middle and high school, which not all districts can afford.
"The teacher does not dive into a situation," Jones said. "Educators will ask me: What do you do? Well, this is what you do. We don't glamorize suicide, but what we want teachers to do is wellness activities, such as coping skills. Create a culture of positive behaviors."
In the new statewide program, schools will place an emphasis on increasing teachers' awareness of the warning signals of potential suicides.
Experts in the video say signs may include suicide threats, drug and alcohol abuse, a change in sleeping or eating habits, weight loss or gain, giving away personal possessions, failing at school activities, and a general withdrawal from society.
Jones said she also likes to emphasize the latest techniques from positive psychology, such as relaxation exercises, gratitude journals and focusing on a person's strengths, instead of their weaknesses. She cited the website Authentichappiness.org, where people can take a test to discover their strengths, along with two books, Flourish by Martin Seligman and How Full Is Your Bucket? by Tom Rath and Donald Clifton.
In these and other sources, Jones said, educators learn to stress the importance of self-worth, interpersonal relationships and learning how to make rational decisions.
Brad Christensen, director of student services at Davis schools, said the new training "is a step in the right direction. Two hours every five years is minimal, because, after all, we're in the service of kids and each other."
Utah youth suicides
Utah teens commit suicide more often than their peers in other parts of the nation. Nineteen Utah teens died by suicide and more than 300 youth received medical assistance for attempted suicide in 2011, according to the Utah Medical Examiners Office.
Here is what students ages 15 to 19 reported about suicide in a recent survey:
43,550 (26.5 percent) felt sad or hopeless for an extended period of time.
23,000 (14 percent) seriously considered suicide.
19,720 (12 percent) made a plan for suicide in the previous year.
11,503 (7 percent) attempted suicide.
Source: Utah State Office of Education training video