Northwest Missourian: New suicide prevention bill aims to inform school districts

Rising suicide rates in Missouri have lawmakers searching for an answer. A new bill may be the first step in preventing these tragic circumstances.

Senator Jill Schupp sponsors the bill known as “Youth Suicide Awareness and Prevention Education.” Created in two parts, it would require the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to create a model plan. From there, individual districts would use DESE’s plan to create their own strategy.

“It’s designed to help teachers and administrators get training through the school regularly to identify what some of the symptoms, or the characteristics of a child that may be in crisis would be, in order to intervene and prevent another suicide,” Schupp said.

According to Schupp, the bill is not mandating any sort of training, but providing professional development for teachers and administrators. The only existing form of professional development in this area is a series of web links sent from DESE for teachers to review.

“We need to start wrapping our hands around getting good policies in place,” Schupp explained. “One of the options is to offer a two hour course to the teachers around understanding the symptoms and being able to identify a student in crisis to help intervene.”

These courses would provide teachers the opportunity to learn those signs of a distressed student, and would become a requirement in order to keep an accredited status.

Maryville High School senior Payden Dawson sees the necessity of suicide education in legislative action.

“Sometimes I think they see it, but they don’t really do anything about it,” Dawson said. “They know that it happens and you can see them kind of glance over it.”

While the bill’s target impact is elementary and secondary education, it is clear the issue goes beyond just high school. Northwest has seen no exclusions to these circumstances, having lost a student last year to suicide.

“I think every single administrator feels sick,” said Vice President of Student Affairs Matt Baker. “We may not individually look in the mirror and say, ‘I should have done something different,’ but we look at every policy and every procedure.”

Schupp recognizes this need at the college level. She believes her bill could potentially have a specific effect on colleges and how they prepare faculty and staff.

“I know kids that are in college are often away from home and their families for the first time. It’s a major change in their life, and there’s a lot of stress and pressure around that,” Schupp said. “We know that there’s a need for young people, even at the higher education level. I’m hopeful this will expand, and colleges will learn good plans and policies that will help them deal with this issue as well.”

Northwest senior Alissa Wiederholt plans on teaching middle school in the future. This new bill could impact her professional development upon accepting a job, but she recognizes the usefulness.

“Teachers know that students are depressed or see signs of it, but they don’t really know how to handle it,” Wiederholt said.

During her time at Northwest, courses that focused on behavior in the classroom may have overlooked student depression and anxiety. Wiederholt serves as a student teacher in the Independence School District and feels unprepared for certain behavioral situations.

“Right now, I really wouldn’t know what to do,” Wiederholt said. “I would probably go through a coworker or someone in an administrative position just to see how our school handles that situation. That’s all I can really do, other than maybe talk to that student.”

The trouble is, faculty in administrative positions may not have received the necessary professional development to field the same scenario. Schupp has a background in teaching, which has provided her insight into the field of education

“My passion for education and my passion for children and learning, and for kids to grow up and be successful and live full lives, could be pieces of why I took the lead on supporting this piece of legislation,” Schupp explained.

Should this bill gain approval from the state, this new professional development could change the way crisis management is conducted. With a model policy that would be created by DESE, districts would be able to create procedures that could potentially save lives.

“It’s really important,” Wiederholt said. “Our number one goal, ask any other teacher, is to keep the kids safe.They all matter so much to us, so why not give us another way to make sure we are doing that.”

Missouri’s suicide rate has hit an all time high of 15.9 per 100,000 people, making suicide a leading cause of death among young people.

In Schupp’s opinion, statistics can be important, but the purpose of the bill is to focus on the individuals involved.

“Anyone that will speak to a family that has dealt with this will tell you that this is critical,” Schupp expressed. “When we look at comparing numbers by state, that’s really important, but if you really get down in to this by individuals, you’ll see the families involved, and the number of families that were impacted. It’s substantial.”

Following a suicide, families are often left with questions and guilt. With the bill’s potential to impact the lives of young people, Baker believes there could be a significant drop in the suicide rate.

“There’s still a stigma about going to a counselor,” Baker said. “If we can get students strong enough to ask for help, we’ll see a decrease in the suicide rate. When people can say, ‘I need help,’ and that’s okay, we’ll see that go down.”

The bill places emphasis on the faculty and staff of a district, however a lot of the issue boils down to the students. A potential “side effect” of the legislation would be a necessary dialogue among students.

“The more teachers know, the more they’re able to impart the wisdom onto the students,” Senator Schupp explained. “I would like to think that the students are talking to each other. There can’t be anything more difficult than knowing that a friend of yours has died of suicide.”

“Youth Suicide Awareness and Prevention Education” has only been in the Senate for a few weeks, however it’s initial response has been positive, according to Schupp.

“If we can even save one life in the state of Missouri, I think that we have an obligation to try,” Schupp said.

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