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Defense Schools Work to Raise Awareness, Prevent Suicides

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 8, 2009 – Defense Department schools are taking on the tough topic of suicide to prevent what is a leading cause of death among teens.

Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among 15- to 19-year-olds, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. That makes it an important topic for the Department of Defense Education Activity, which runs a school system that serves the children of servicemembers and the department’s civilian employees overseas and at many stateside locations.

The activity’s schools use “SOS Signs of Suicide,” a program developed by Screening for Mental Health, a private company that provides age-appropriate materials for students in Grades 6 through 12.

“It’s a wonderful program [that] goes through all of the typical things that a student should see in other students when they are considering hurting themselves,” said Mary Patton, the activity’s pupil personnel service coordinator.

The middle school program teaches students how to identify symptoms of depression, self-injury and suicidal indicators in themselves and friends. The high school program builds on that, educating students that depression is treatable and equipping them to deal with a friend or family member at risk of committing suicide.

Students learn which behaviors signal that a friend or family member might be in trouble, and what to do if they encounter someone exhibiting those behaviors.

“They’re now very attuned to what to look for,” Patton said. “They don’t go looking for it, but if they have a friend that all of a sudden starts giving away all his prized possessions, they know that’s an immediate sign. Students learn to notify an adult – a teacher, principal or school counselor – if they notice danger signs.

“A child cannot have that responsibility of doing something,” Patton said. “They have to tell somebody who has the skills and the knowledge and the resources to do something for that child [in crisis].”

Patton suggests the same approach if a parent is concerned about a child. Talking to the school nurse, principal or counselor is always the best thing to do, she said.

“You can read all you want, but sitting down and describing it [is more effective],” she said. “I don’t think a parent ever needs to be embarrassed that their child has strange behaviors, and if it turns out it’s just teenage strange behavior, good.”

Officials are making a concerted effort to prevent suicide among the activity’s students, Patton said. In addition to the suicide prevention programs, she explained, the Defense Department schools have the nationally recommended number of school counselors and psychologists: a counselor for every 300 students, and a psychologist for every 1,000 students within the system.

“Military family life consultants who work under contract also are part of the effort. “They’re licensed social workers and psychologists who rotate in and out of our schools,” Patton said.

That rotation allows for fresh perspectives on how to help those who may be struggling with mental health issues, she added. The consultants serve in areas with high deployment rates and other areas where issues that seem to cause mental health problems exist.

Commanders at Fort Campbell, Ky., took three days in May to address the high number of suicides on the post this year, but the schools aren’t seeing a correlation between the wars and students’ risk for suicide, Patton said.

The education activity doesn’t keep statistics on suicides among students, she said, but does track serious-incident reports. Among those, data does not indicate increased suicides among students since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, she said.

While she can’t say for certain, Patton said, the lack of increases in student suicides or attempted suicides would lead officials to consider the prevention programs successful.

But that doesn’t mean students can’t become “at risk,” she emphasized.

“Any time there’s a change in a student’s behavior, that’s one of the first indicators,” Patton said. “Any time there’s a drop in grades, we look at that.

An increase in absences, physical ailments that seem to defy definition or diagnosis, depression of any kind, or a lack of interest in things that usually brought happiness -- all are indicators that a child may be at risk, she added.

Friends and family also should note if a depressed child suddenly becomes cheerful, which could indicate a decision to commit suicide, Patton said.

Defense schools do much to stave off situations that may lead a child to become depressed enough to consider suicide, she said. The schools offer a variety of activities such as sports, clubs and places where students can feel that they fit in.

If they have a place where they belong, Patton said, children feel more secure and are happier.

“I would never minimize the importance of family time,” she added, noting that family doesn’t have to just be blood relatives. “Kids need a place to belong, and usually the family is the safest place. [But] families don’t necessarily include a mom or a dad. A lot of military families have friends that are family members.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests keeping lines of communication open as another way to prevent suicide. Asking the child’s pediatrician for guidance also can be helpful, Patton said.

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