Suicide prevention program focuses on teens
Research shows 'Signs of Suicide' helps reduce the number of attempts by high school students.
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Medway counselor Meredith Poulten sends a letter to parents each year explaining the SOS program and the basic self-screening survey that students are asked to take. After seeing the presentation, students privately answer a few questions about their mental outlook, ranging from "Do you have less energy than you normally do?" to "Do you think seriously about killing yourself?" Then a scoring guide tells them whether they should consider evaluation or counseling.Skip to next paragraph
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Each year Mrs. Poulten gets some calls from parents with questions, and a few decide they don't want their children to participate. Usually less than 1 percent of students say they want to talk with a counselor after the screening. But Poulten finds about a dozen whose surveys prompt her to "check to make sure they're OK," she says. "Sometimes they're just having a bad day. If we do really find a problem, then we contact the parents."
Poulten runs a drop-in center where students can come to talk, hang out, or even do research for a class. While she encourages them to talk over issues with parents, she keeps everything confidential unless students are at risk of harming themselves or others. She also oversees peer counselors, who assist with the SOS program and have their own room where students can come talk about anything on their minds.
Perhaps the most effective component of SOS at Medway is an additional video created by a peer counselor who has since graduated. Looking straight into the camera, occasionally flipping wavy blond hair out of his eyes, he tells what led to his own suicide attempts in high school.
Depression and suicidal thoughts are "kind of like a black hole.... It gradually gets bigger and bigger and sucks you in until everything is just a negative thought," he says to the somber freshmen watching him on a screen. He describes the night when he got into a fight not only with his best friend but with his parents, too. He stormed into his room after telling his family, "I'm sorry for making your life so difficult ... and hopefully you can find someone to take my place and be a lot better than I've been."
Nobody checked on him, as he hoped they would. "That night I cut myself worse than I'd ever cut myself before, hoping that I wouldn't wake up in the morning. I thank God every day that I woke up, now," he says. He tried to hang himself that summer, but the following school year Poulten's message started to click and he realized "that people needed me around, and I had things to do and accomplish."
His plea to each freshman at Medway (where a girl succeeded in her suicide attempt while he was a student there): "Look at your friends, notice what's going on.... This isn't a joke."
After the videos, the class is quiet. Poulten invites questions and discussion, but she doesn't push when there's no verbal response. Many students nod when asked if they would feel comfortable talking to an adult about a friend exhibiting the signs they've just learned about. A few say the Medway student's video was easier to relate to than the SOS video, in which actors play out scenes and the right and wrong way to react to a friend exhibiting various warning signs.
Their English teacher, Laura Morris, wonders if the message really sank in for these honors students. "I saw them kind of smirking and laughing.... I was wondering, how can kids get over that sense of 'Oh, that's silly, that's for the kids who are messed up'?"
Most students do take the message seriously, Poulten and the peer counselors say. It's difficult to know if the absence of suicide at Medway in the past few years has been because of SOS. But Poulten has seen an increase in students referring their friends to her.
"We hope that this has a long-lasting effect. At least it's in the back of their mind ... that there's help and if the subject [of suicide] comes up, and what they can do about it," she says.
Facts about youth suicide rates
In 2005, 16.9 percent of US high school students reported they had seriously considered attempting suicide – and 8.4 percent actually had attempted suicide – in the past year.
Among 15- to 24-year-olds in the US:
•There is 1 suicide for every 100 to 200 attempts.
•Suicide is the third-leading cause of death.
•Suicide accounts for 12.9 percent of deaths annually (compared with 1.4 percent of deaths in the overall population).
Source: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
How to find help and more information
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org 800-273-TALK (8255)
National Hopeline Network www.hopeline.com 800-442-HOPE (4673)
Mental Health Screening www.mentalhealthscreening.org (781) 239-0071
National Institute of Mental Health www.nimh.nih.gov (301) 443-4513
National Emergency Assistance Team www.nasponline.org/resources/crisis_safety/NEAT.aspx (301) 657-0270