Knowing is more than half the battle. It can win back a life.
State law requires Pennsylvania school districts to provide four hours of suicide prevention training to all teachers in grades 6-12 every five years.
“It needs to be in the forefront of the educator’s mind,” said Samantha Benz, central and eastern Pennsylvania area director of the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention.
“It can be truly lifesaving for them to be educated to recognize the warning signs,” she said.
The foundation offers schools the More Than Sad program, an instructional module of two films designed to teach educators the signs of mental health distress in students along with techniques on how to refer them for help. The program can also be used to train students and parents.
Students are taught how to recognize signs of depression in themselves and others that could develop into thoughts of suicide. Parents are taught to not only look for red flags but how to initiate a conversation with their teen.
South Middleton School District started training its staff in suicide prevention in 2017-18, said Joel Hain, Boiling Springs High School principal. “This year we are going out and speaking to students through homerooms and resource periods,” he said.
The goal is to reach all students in grades 9-12 with lessons on what to do if they see the warning signs in friends or classmates.
Teachers are required to keep up on professional development with annual training. In recent years, there has been an increase of about 25 percent in the amount of in-service hours devoted to mental health issues in students, said Johanna Jones, a counselor at Carlisle High School and the head of the counseling department for Carlisle Area School District.
Often there are topics that come up at faculty meetings that shape what is offered in training, she said. “If something is a hot topic or a spike with a lot of kids ... we will do something.”
Other times training opportunities are influenced by larger events like the emphasis placed on school safety and security in wake of the Parkland, Florida shootings last year.
“We’ve had a lot of training time around poverty awareness,” Jones said. “That has been a big initiative of the district for the last three years.”
The push there is to instruct teachers to be aware of the economic challenges of some families so as not to penalize students for being poor or disadvantaged.
Some students have to cope with negative peer pressure born of circumstances beyond their control, such as wearing the same shirt every day due to a lack of money.
Cumberland Valley School District has hosted teacher workshops on what is called adverse childhood experiences, said Doris Baboian, director of student services. Like poverty, the goal is to give teachers an understanding of how to make informed decisions based on a student’s background.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “adverse childhood experiences” can include abuse, neglect and household dysfunction, such as witnesses domestic violence or growing up with family members with substance abuse disorders.
Change with times
The way in which training is offered has changed with technology, said JoAnn Coslett, department chairman of the psychologists serving the Cumberland Valley School District.
“We used to have in-service days where everybody would come,” Coslett said. “There would be hundreds of teachers, no matter the topic.”
But the instruction would only apply to 75 to 80 percent of those attending. The others would have to sit through material that was not always relevant or important to them.
Now, Cumberland Valley uses an individualized plan where every teacher has 20 to 30 offerings to choose from beyond whatever mandatory training is required, Coslett said. “The district says this is how many hours we want you to do in professional training. Here are the ones that are required. The rest of the hours are up to you.”
This is made possible through the use of online videos, podcasts, automated PowerPoints and webinars. The offerings are easier to do after school or over the summer, Coslett said.