Teen suicide: Prevention is contagious, too.
Teen suicide in the US continues at high rates, but the stories of lives saved often don't make headlines – and prevention experts are encouraged about progress in that direction.
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Wyman co-wrote the randomized controlled study, which took place in 18 high schools in Georgia, New York, and North Dakota and earned Sources of Strength a place on the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices run by the US Department of Health and Human Services. His current study in 40 schools will measure the program's ability to reduce suicide attempts.Skip to next paragraph
Not many youth-intervention programs have measured the effect on suicidal behavior. But one major exception shows the promise of the upstream approach: the Good Behavior Game (GBG). It improves classroom behavior by dividing students, ages 6 to 12, into teams that lose points or privileges if any one member breaks classroom rules. A study in 19 Baltimore public schools found a host of positive outcomes for participants, both in childhood and in early adulthood. As young adults, they thought about suicide at half the rate of their peers in a control group. Eleven percent of young men who had been in a GBG classroom reported suicidal thoughts in the follow-up survey, compared with 24 percent of the control group. For young women, the figures were 9 percent versus 19 percent. (The GBC study authors define "suicidal ideation" – or suicidal thoughts – as a spectrum of thinking starting with thinking about dying or wanting to die, to imagining oneself dead, to planning to kill oneself.)
Across North America, about 250 Sources of Strength teams are established in schools, colleges, and community groups, and the numbers are steadily growing.
Sources of Strength improves school climate broadly because the peer leaders are not just star students or the kids who join a lot of clubs, Wyman says. They're explicitly chosen to span the wide array of social groups.
Chautauqua Lake isn't very racially diverse, but the kids in today's training include computer enthusiasts, athletes, Boy Scouts, musicians, members of the honor society, a Japanese exchange student, a teen mom, and a girl whose father is in and out of jail. Adviser Steve Johnston, a science teacher, says he originally questioned whether it would work to bring together such a cross section of kids. "But they really hit it off from Day 1," he says. Other students "observe these kids and they realize they're all getting along, so it just branches out ... and it creates a good deal of empathy."
When it comes to talking about suicide, "the taboo has kind of started to fade away," says Steven Akin, a senior who has been with the group since the first training two years ago. "If somebody were to come to me before..., I would have been like, 'Whoa, that's heavy stuff, I don't know what to tell you.' But now I feel a little bit more equipped to help."
Both kids and teachers are reporting more concerns about students. "Our teachers are more aware now of how important their role is..., to be there to listen," says Principal Joshua Liddell, who oversees about 600 students in Grades 7 to 12.
Having "students down in the trenches ... decreases the likelihood that kids are going to slip through cracks," says school counselor Jason Richardson.
When students have reached out to Mr. Johnston for themselves or a friend, "it's always gotten better; it's just getting through that low point," he says.
In the past two years, the peer group has conducted a "random acts of kindness" campaign, mentored elementary students, tackled bullying, and put up posters showing students with their "trusted adults." This year, they are considering hosting small-group discussions throughout the school to address suicide risks and the preventive strengths.
"In school there's not that much time to talk to each other," Bridgett says. "If we reach out to more people, they'll be able to open up, too, hopefully, and they'll feel safe to do that."