Student-led suicide prevention education provides best results

Sources of Strength program teaches students to spot warning signs

The suicide rate among 10- to 14-year-olds is on the rise. While the statistics are dire, a solution seems to be taking shape. Prevention may be in the hands of the students themselves.

Dan Cohen, a University of Missouri doctoral candidate specializing in suicide prevention, cites a 2015 study titled “Saving and Empowering Young Lives in Europe” which found that educating students about the causes and consequences of depression and how to cultivate healthy emotions has the best results.

The study assessed three types of suicide prevention programs: systematic screening, the “gatekeeper” approach in which staff are trained to spot warning signs, and programs that build students’ coping skills.

Under systematic screening, all students in a school are evaluated for depression and at-risk behaviors such as suicide ideation and substance abuse. Questions include: Have you ever thought about dying? How often? Have you thought about killing yourself?

The gatekeeper approach trains teachers and other adults to identify youth who appear at risk. Los Angeles USD, for example, shows staff how to recognize subtle signs of suicidal tendencies, such as low self-esteem, isolation, despondency, depression, restlessness and fatigue.

Coping skills, regulating emotions

A program called Sources of Strength empowers students to help prevent suicide among their classmates. In 2010, the American Journal of Public Health study found youth trained in the Sources of Strength program were four times more likely than untrained peer leaders to refer a suicidal friend to an adult.

In Sources of Strength, students learn to spot the mental health problems that lead to suicidal behavior, and how to develop coping skills and access treatment.

Addressing problems before they start is key. The PAX Good Behavior Game is used during regular instruction to teach first- and second-graders to regulate their emotions, to focus and to cooperate, all of which can improve self-esteem. “It’s a highly effective behavior management tool” Cohen says.

Follow-up studies on students with behavioral risk factors—such as exposure to violence at a young age—show that those who have gone through the program are less likely to be affected by suicidal thoughts, drug use and even risky sex, Cohen says.

“(Youth suicide) is a disturbing trend” says Courtney Lenard, health communication specialist for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We all have a role to play in enhancing connectedness and preventing people from isolating themselves.”


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