INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana teachers could play a key role in suicide prevention under a bill that supporters say would help prevent tragedies.
The push is part of a national movement to enlist teachers and school personnel to help recognize behavioral changes and other signs that could suggest suicidal tendencies.
At least four states require teachers and school personnel to be trained in warning signs, and Indiana is one of several others considering legislation that would increase opportunities for such training.
Backing for the program is coming from the Hendersonville, Tenn.-based Jason Foundation, which Clark Flatt founded and named for his 16-year-old son, who committed suicide in 1997.
"You educate teachers what to look for and there will be at least one young person alive 12 months from now who would not have been alive," Flatt said. "How important is that one young person?
Federal statistics show suicide is the third-leading cause of death among adolescents, with nearly 1,500 suicides among those ages 15 to 19 in 2007, the most recent year for which data were available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That year's rate of 6.87 suicides per 100,000 for that age group continued a trend down from the 8.04 rate in 1999.
But a series of high-profile suicides across the country last year involving teenagers who were believed to have been victims of online bullying has helped fuel advocates' push for prevention efforts in schools.
The Jason Foundation is calling for mandatory teacher training throughout the country. Currently, Tennessee, Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi require training, said Flatt, the foundation's president. Others, such as California, have laws encouraging such training.
Flatt said Tennessee, which has required two hours of annual suicide prevention training for teachers since 2007, has seen a nearly one-third decline in teen suicides in the past five years.
"I think we have to lay a big part of that result to our teachers being more alert to the possible warning signs, not just of suicide, but of those mental health issues left unaddressed and undiagnosed," he said.
In Indiana, lawmakers are considering a bill that would require suicide-prevention training for new teachers and make it one of the continuing education programs available to current teachers.
A 2009 survey of high school students found 17.2 percent in Indiana had seriously considered suicide, compared with the national average of 13.8 percent, according to the state Department of Health.
Indiana's proposal is more modest than the mandatory training in other states. Bill sponsor Sen. Patricia Miller, R-Indianapolis, said the legislation would give the schools the time for teacher training, which could be done at little or no cost through programs such as those offered by the Jason Foundation.
The Indiana Senate and House have both advanced versions of the teacher training bill. Advocates said they considered it a good start and that schools will want to increase training even if not required.
"People don't like to talk about mental illness — well, they really don't like to talk about suicide," said Steve McCaffrey, president of Mental Health America of Indiana. "Having the conversation among the teachers, in the schools, is a way to eradicate the stigma that goes with it."
Bre England, a counselor at Warren Central High School in Indianapolis, said knowing what to watch for can help teachers identify troubled students and direct them to counseling and other services before it's too late.
The school launched suicide-prevention programs for all staff members at the 3,600-student school after two students and a teacher committed suicide within a month in 2008.
"While I think we can be pre-emptive at this point, we would like to see other schools take the same measures prior to facing what we faced," England said.
Lisa Carter, a seventh-grade math teacher in White House, Tenn., has seen the benefits of her training, which includes a two-hour annual refresher course through a DVD program.
Carter said she's used her training to notify school counselors about suspect behavior in students.
"You have so many students every day, you kind of overlook some problems or don't stop to think about what might be going on in their everyday life," Carter said.
Lisa Brattain hopes more states follow Tennessee's example.
Her 19-year-old son, Kurt, had suffered from depression for years before committing suicide in 2006, about six months after graduating from Noblesville High School in suburban Indianapolis.
Brattain, who now leads the Indiana chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, has helped with training at many schools and said some educators are still reluctant to discuss the topic.
She compares the evolving attitude toward suicide to that of breast cancer and other illnesses.
"Thirty years ago, you didn't say breast cancer out loud," she said. "Now because people are allowed to have conversations about it, look at the education we've got about breast cancer."