House approves suicide prevention training for schools

The STANDUP Act bill, which heads to the Senate, aims to give more assistance to students in K-12 settings and help prevent crisis moments
By: | October 1, 2020
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The second leading cause of death among students is suicide. More than 10 in every 100,000 students ages 10-18 will die by taking their own life, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control.

And they are on the rise. During a decade of research ending in 2017, the CDC noted that suicides nearly tripled among children 10-14.

Bullying, isolation, life events and mental illness can all heighten feelings of anxiety and hopelessness, leading to tragic outcomes. During this crisis moment for the nation where one in four students are reporting suicidal thoughts, young students need help, and it may be coming through the education system.

On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill called the Suicide Training and Awareness Nationally Delivered for Universal Prevention Act  that might be a game-changer for students struggling with those thoughts. The STANDUP Act (H.R. 7293) would increase suicide prevention training in schools for students in grades 6 through 12. It now heads to the Senate floor for final approval.

“I can’t think of a better way to recognize National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month (September) than the House of Representatives voting to expand access to evidence-based suicide prevention programs for young people,” said Mark Barden, the co-founder and managing director of Sandy Hook Promise Foundation, whose son Daniel was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. “It’s more important than ever to prioritize this kind of training.”

Representatives from both sides of the aisle came together to help launch the bill – Scott Peters (D-CA), Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) – believing that enhanced training can be the positive force that gives students help and hope and ultimately prevents suicides.

“There is no higher priority than keeping our children safe,” Bilirakis said. “By providing high-quality screening and prevention training to school staff and peers, we can identify threats before they materialize, and ensure that those who are at risk get the mental health treatment they need.”

The power of prevention programs

Through the years, a number of training programs have been created both in the United States and in Europe at the school level – SOS Signs of Suicide of Prevention, Youth Aware of Mental Health Program and Good Behavior Game – and with reported success, helping students better cope with their feelings, empowering them to recognize early warning signs and mitigating suicidal thoughts and attempts. The Sandy Hook Promise also notes that in schools that have instituted prevention programs, suspensions and expulsions have been reduced.

One of the most thorough resources on the topic is the 169-page Youth Suicide Prevention Guide, done by University of South Florida researchers in 2012. They concluded that well-supported schools “can do much to prevent youth suicide, to identify students at risk and to direct youth to prompt, effective treatment.” Authors also noted that a school setting was a far better place to reach youth than outside the home because “students have the greatest exposure to multiple helpers such as teachers, counselors, coaches, staff and classmates who have the potential to intervene.”

The STANDUP Act piggybacks on a grant program called Project Aware that was started in 2012 after the Sandy Hook Shooting that sought to reduce violence among students and heighten awareness and get help for students struggling with potential mental health illnesses.

If passed by the Senate, STANDUP would give states, schools and tribes the power to expand access to suicide prevention and threat assessment programs to all students. House representatives understand its urgency and have heard the troubling trends – one in eight children 6-12 have admitted thoughts of suicide, according to the CDC.

“Teaching students and school personnel to understand and recognize signs of violent or suicidal ideation in youth and their peers is crucial to stem the crises of youth suicide and violence,” Peters said. “Early prevention can mean the difference between life or death, and giving schools the tools they need to prevent and react to threats before tragedy occurs ensures we are protecting our children and school safety.”

In addition to the passing of the STANDUP Act bill, legislators also supported two other measures proposed by the Sandy Hook Promise that affect schools:

  • Mental Health Services for Students Act (H.R. 1109): Providing  funding for public schools to partner with local mental health professionals to establish on-site mental health care services for students.
  • Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act of 2019 (H.R. 5469): Federal legislation to address increased suicide rates and mental health disorders among Black youth by providing grants for culturally appropriate mental health services in schools and community settings.

Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for District Administration. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com