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Intervention Instruction: Youths at risk for suicide often ask for help. School staff must listen.

Pill Bottle spilling out the word 'Help'. Illustration by Blake Dinsdale

“If your existence is hateful to you: die; if you are overwhelmed by fate: drink the hemlock. If you are bowed with grief, abandon life.” So instructed the ancient Athenian Assembly to despairing Greek citizens, a stern edict recorded by the rhetorician Libanius and quoted, much more recently, by the poet A. Alvarez in his classic meditation on suicide.

Alvarez wrote his book, The Savage God, after his own failed attempt to heed the Athenian Assembly’s advice and the death, by her own hand, of his friend Sylvia Plath. Despite the personal nature of his narrative, Alvarez was keenly aware that suicide was a universal affliction. “According to the official statistics,” he wrote, “there would have been at least ninety-nine other suicides in Great Britain the week Sylvia died.”

Last week in the United States, according to statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health, there were at least 634. Tragically, many of these suicides would have been adolescents and young adults.

In 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 14.5 percent of U.S. high school students surveyed reported they had seriously considered attempting suicide during the previous 12 months.

We can, and should, do more to lessen this terrible toll says MU’s James Koller, co-director of the Center for the Advancement of Mental Health Practices in the Schools and professor emeritus of educational, school and counseling psychology. Providing intervention instruction to those best positioned to recognize potentially suicidal young people—teachers and staff in schools—is the key to saving lives.

“Many suicidal students will likely go to a teacher, coach or janitor before they go to a school counselor,” Koller says. “Educators most often serve as gatekeepers. They are the ones interacting with students on a daily basis and are more likely to notice changes in behavior or attitude. Yet they often lack the training to deal with these issues. Schools most often train their teachers how to react to suicides, but not how to prevent them.”

Koller hopes to help schools do better. With support from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Missouri Department of Mental Health, he has developed a statewide “train the trainer” program that, in conjunction with the MU Partnership for Educational Renewal, brings educators to Columbia to learn the latest suicide prevention and response techniques. Participants then return to their home districts to train others.

Koller has also developed a graduate-level, three credit-hour course. It is available online through the MU Center for Distance and Independent Study.

Together the training program and course will help educators and other school employees—custodians, lunch-room workers and support staff among them—identify suicide risk factors and warnings, thus boosting their effectiveness in responding to students in need. Risk factors include depression, alcohol or other drug-use disorders, physical or sexual abuse and disruptive behavior.

“Suicide is a pervasive, all-encompassing problem that is hard to deal with and define, let alone prevent,” says Koller. “Many suicide prevention programs already exist, but you can’t learn everything you need to know in 10 minutes. This is why a more comprehensive approach is needed.”

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University of Missouri

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