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Mental Health First Aid

From left, Myra Jordan, Normandy Middle School parent liaison; Joan Lee, Normandy High School parent liaison; and Yvonne Banks, Normandy Early Childhood Education parent liaison, review the Mental Health first aid action plan during the last day of their Mental Health First Aid class at St. Louis Community College Florissant Valley campus on Friday Nov. 18, 2011. Emily Rasinski, erasinski@post-dispatch.com

Counselors will be available to students throughout the day.

It's the standard response that follows most of the sad announcements that no school ever wants to have to make — a student has died by taking his or her own life.

Now, with help from a training program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, counselors from school districts statewide are developing more than just an offer to talk in the aftermath of a suicide to help their fellow students cope. They're also taking more measures to prevent others from the same ending.

"It used to be we didn't talk about suicide, and we don't want to believe that stuff happens," said Julie Harrison, coordinator of guidance and counseling for the Parkway School District. "We're starting to talk about it now."

How to handle the aftermath of a student suicide has long been one of the more vexing questions in education. Teachers and counselors worry that if they say too much about the death, they risk glorifying the suicide — potentially leading to copycats. But failing to respond also carries profound risks.

At Parkway, Harrison said, individual schools in the district previously each handled suicide in different ways.

The training from the University of Missouri has led to a more unified approach at Parkway and other school districts such as Maplewood Richmond Heights, Lindbergh and St. Louis Public Schools, one that experts say is grounded in the latest research on suicide.

Harrison said the training pushed her and other counselors to create a plan with two local agencies, Kids Under Twenty-One, or KUTO, and CHADS Coalition for Mental Health, to present workshops to students in grades 7 to 12 about suicide and mental health issues. They want to officially draft the procedures into district policy and mandate suicide response and prevention training for all employees.

When a suicide happens, Parkway now takes several steps when alerting other students and teachers of the death.

Teachers and counselors identify the student's best friends and reach out to them personally. They ask them about anyone else who should know. A counselor and administrator follow the student's schedule throughout the day and check in with each class. They give students a chance to talk about the student.

The students are allowed to call their parents and leave school, if necessary. And teachers and staff continuously check the halls and bathrooms throughout the day to make sure students aren't upset and alone.

PROGRAM HONORED

Two years ago, after recognizing a growing need for student mental health training, MU administrators developed the Mental Health Leadership Academy as a way to educate teachers under a "train the trainer" model. The teachers and counselors have since gone back into their district and told others what they've learned. The program was recently recognized by the National Network for Educational Renewal, a group that studies best practices in teacher training.

"Kids spend a majority of their day in school, and so we're trying to spread the word and be more proactive," said James Koller, a professor emeritus at MU who worked with the Missouri Department of Mental Health on suicide prevention to develop the program and train teachers, many of which did not have specific courses on the issue previously. The training encouraged schools to set up systems to identify kids at risk and recognize those who demonstrate warning signs, he said.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 24, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Teenagers can be particularly susceptible because of the stresses of growing up. Young people can lack the network of support adults have or experience in dealing with problems, counselors say.

In St. Louis County, the medical examiner's office has recorded four teenage suicides this year. Last year, there were three.

A survey last year of Missouri students by the Missouri Institute of Mental Health found that nearly 13 percent of those surveyed said they had considered suicide in the last year and a little more than 9 percent had made a plan to commit suicide.

Teachers and school staff want more resources and information, and the institutions that educate them are responding. In the Normandy School District, a group of parent liaisons recently took a course in Mental Health First Aid offered by St. Louis Community College.

A SHIFT ON EDUCATION

Dan Lowry, co-director of the Missouri Partnership for Education Renewal at MU that offers the Mental Health Leadership Academy, said education in the United States has undergone a dramatic shift throughout the last 40 years. A school counselor once talked to students about their career options. Today, they must handle an array of student mental health issues. MPER did the background work and research on the policies that work for suicide prevention and training, he said.

As a result, schools now have a more comprehensive approach with more emphasis on awareness, education and support, said Carol Sosa, intervention counselor at Lindbergh Schools. All teachers in the district now have a yearly training on warning signs of suicide and the steps they should take should they notice them in a student. The statistics demand this response, she said.

"It's a more open conversation now," Sosa said. "We've got to pay attention to this. Teachers really are the front line and we are counting on them to be the eyes and ears."