Even up close, he looked happy and cute, like many of the other 9-year-olds in his fourth grade class. He giggled. Played soccer at recess. He seemed content, sporting a big smile, definitely was not withdrawn or angry, or so his teacher — the school’s social worker — told me.
Nobody knows exactly what he was thinking or feeling at the time, but one day, during library time, while other kids were checking out their weekly books, he told his teacher that he wanted to kill himself. In those very words.
That someone his age could be suicidal surprised even me, a school social worker trained in suicide prevention. I wondered if he even knew what killing yourself meant. I asked him a few questions as he played with the Legos in my office toy box, including: Did he tell his teacher that he wanted to kill himself? Yes. Did he still want to do that? No. Per the school district’s protocol I called their mental health crisis team who sent someone to talk to him further.
To those who study Nevada’s suicide statistics, the reality of young people ending their own lives is startling. In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control determined that suicide was the leading cause of death for Nevadans aged 12-19.
And the numbers of Nevada youth who took their own lives doubled between 2017 and 2018 according to the Nevada state Office of Suicide Prevention. Nevada’s climbing rate of suicide among minors was 2.1 per 100,000 children and teens in 2017, and 3.8 per 100,00 in 2018.
In 2017, 14 Nevada middle schoolers made a suicide pact to die together. Fortunately adults found out and intervened on time.
In layman’s terms, the situation is bad. Really bad.
The astonishing youth suicide statistics were not lost on Assemblyman John Ellison, R-Elko, who this session proposed AB 114, one of two bills requiring all Nevada’s school staff to become trained in suicide prevention techniques.
Did it pass? Sure. With very few nays.
But it’s now a completely different and amended version of the original bill. It’s only connection to suicide prevention training is that it’s a report generator, requiring all school districts in Nevada to analyze their current suicide prevention training programs (or lack of) and produce reports for Nevada’s State Board of Education on the matter for further review.
That is why I hope another suicide prevention bill, SB 204, which also proposes suicide prevention training for teachers, passes this session. It passed the Senate, and it will now be considered by the Assembly on Tuesday. Hopefully it won’t have the same outcome as AB 114.
As someone with bipolar disorder, who’s faced suicide issues throughout my own life, the very watered-down AB 114 seems an obvious case of sweeping an important issue under the rug. Mental health issues can seem the worst when you’re young, confused, not sure why you’re feeling this or that and embarrassed to talk about it.
During my first year of college — I was 18 — I had no idea why I was consistently depressed, sad or glum. I had never heard of the term bipolar. and as a result I ended up flunking all but two classes. The highlight of my year was getting a letter in the mail stating that the university was not expelling me.
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The second year a kind and compassionate academic advisor was there to help. I talked about my feelings of depression with him. I didn’t tell my parents. Suicide is a VERY hard topic for people to talk about. I get it.
I’ve read Nevada’s school districts arguments against the trainings: They say teachers are too busy and districts don’t have money to pay substitutes while teachers get trained.
Seriously? We’re talking about two hours out of the school year – enough time to learn some some suicide prevention basics: warning signs, facts and myths, some general information. Teachers don’t need therapy training. They have school counselors for that.
Lynette Vega is a teacher in Elko whose 20-something year old daughter, a veteran, died by suicide. Vega now runs a group called Zero Suicide Elko County and voluntarily teaches suicide prevention to students. Other educators should follow suit.
The mom of that 9-year-old boy was grateful the school called her. That is why offering parents the opportunity to learn about suicide prevention is also a good thing. Many schools offer parent nights with information about drug and alcohol, bullying and other important issues.
Back in the legislature, politicians need to wake up. They passed laws in 2015 and 2017 requiring mental health providers, doctors and other health care professionals in Nevada to take suicide prevention training. As a social worker, I have to take them. They’re often free or low cost.
These days suicide prevention training is available in person, via online programs that offer training guides, even You Tube, which is awash with educational videos that school staff could watch and discuss with their school’s counselor, social worker, or even nurse.
We know a lot of things about suicide: It’s an impulsive move and there often are warning signs – depression, sadness, a major change in behavior. But sometimes not, like the case of that seemingly happy-go-lucky 4th grader in my school. Confiding in a teacher — as he did — might be a first step to getting help.
Dear members of the Assembly, this is what you need to know when you vote on SB 204: Suicidal individuals want to talk to someone. They don’t want to die. They want help, whether from a school teacher, a friend, or the Crisis Support Services of Nevada which now answers text messages and emails, and not just the phone.
And school administrators, let’s get students involved. There are endless suicide prevention programs for students – often led by trained students. Or why can’t schools put up suicide prevention posters – preferably made by students themselves—in their classrooms? Or have a mental health week, like they do for homecoming?
Clark County School District is doing some great things. Student mental health is a priority for them. But all school districts need to address this issue.
Young Nevadans need help. Teachers can help. Training them might make the ultimate difference in a young person’s life. Literally.
If you or someone else is in need of help for a crisis, the Crisis Support Services of Nevada can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 or texts can be sent to CARE 839863