Suicide prevention program expanding to early grades

Suicide prevention program expanding to early grades

(Wash.) After successfully keeping a student from ending their own life, one Washington school district will extend an age appropriate version of its middle and high school suicide prevention program to children as early as pre-K.

Starting in January, the Edmonds School District will introduce a new curriculum for students between pre-K and 3rd grade that will teach social and emotional skills to help children understand and deal with their emotions.

Though only implemented two years ago, the original prevention program–“Signs of Suicide”–has already been credited with saving lives. For instance, school health officials have said they were able to find one student who had stockpiled pills and was planning to end her life the following week, but they were able to intervene and stop her.

Currently, older students receive instruction on resources for depression or anxiety disorders, as well as the common signs one may exhibit if they are suicidal. Perhaps more importantly, though, they’re taught to always tell a trusted adult if a friend speaks about wanting to end their own life – even if a student is unsure whether or not their friend is joking or exaggerating.

“We are educating them that this is not a problem you can solve, but you need to care enough and we need to look out for one another to tell somebody who can,” JoAnna Rockwood, a school psychologist in the district, told reporters from K5-TV. “Talking about it helps destigmatize it, helps us understand, and helps us send a message that depression is a treatable illness–there is help out there.”

The suicide rate among 15- to 19-year-olds declined between 1990 and 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but has since risen 31 percent between 2007 and 2015. And preliminary findings from a Vanderbilt University study released this year show that the percent of youth ages 5 to 17 hospitalized across the U.S. for self-harm or suicidal thoughts or actions doubled between 2008 and 2015.

Policymakers throughout the country have sought to reduce the rates of suicide among school-aged kids by improving professional development to help educators spot warning signs and notify the proper people. Many are also targeting subgroups facing higher rates of depression or bullying that lead to higher rates of suicidal thoughts or actions, including Native American youth and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

Since 2015, states including Colorado, Delaware, Arizona and California have introduced legislation addressing funding for school counselors and social-emotional supports, and professional development.

In Washington, a recent statewide survey found that one in five high school students considered taking their own life in the past 12 months, and a significant number of teens signaled strong feelings of sadness, hopelessness and depression.

The Edmonds School District, located about 16 miles north of Seattle, implemented its prevention program as part of its health class curriculum after a student at Lynnwood High School died by suicide just before her senior year. Many in the community were surprised, according to local reports, as the student was by all accounts a popular cheerleader who was involved in extra-curricular activities and had aspirations of attending Yale Law School.

Since then, the district has begun teaching students when and how to reach out to a trusted adult on behalf of others who express suicidal thoughts or self-harm. Parents are also instructed on how to talk to their children about suicide, just as they would discuss sex, drug or alcohol use.

Next year, children enrolled in the district’s preschool program and those through grade three will learn social and emotional skills meant to help them understand their negative emotions and work through them in healthy ways.