Editor’s note: This story is part of Breaking the Silence, a week-long effort by news organizations across Oregon to change the way we talk about the public health crisis of death by suicide. It contains descriptions of suicide and may not be suitable for all readers. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call for help now. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is a free service answered by trained staff 24 hours per day, every day. The number is 1-800-273-8255. Or text 273TALK to 839863.
Oregon lawmakers have called for schools to create suicide prevention plans in time for the 2020-21 school year with methods to address high-risk groups and training for school employees. Until now, Oregon was one of just three states without a requirement for suicide plans at schools.
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News organizations around Oregon are collaborating to bring attention to the problem of suicide, report on populations at highest risk and share resources on how to prevent it.
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Washington is one of the other 47, with a requirement for school suicide plans for six years.
But top state officials say there are still major gaps in getting those school plans done.
“I think one of the biggest barriers has been … this is what we call an ‘unfunded mandate’,” said Camille Goldy, the behavioral health and suicide prevention program supervisor for Washington’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
“School districts receive the requirement without receiving any resources to get to a full implementation of the requirements from the plan.”
Without funding, Goldy said efforts to reduce suicide are left to the staff already in place to do what they can with existing resources. In an interview with OPB, Goldy said if the goal is to create systems for teachers and school staff to watch out for children at risk of suicide and to respond appropriately, that takes extensive work, which is substantially different from what schools are prepared to do.
“We shouldn’t be assuming that the school district staff have the capacity to take on this extra body of work,” Goldy said.
The first step - putting a plan together - can be a big deal.
“When I try to talk about it, I talk about it as a big strategic planning process because one person can’t develop a plan in isolation,” she said.
But what’s happening, from her perspective at the state, is 295 school districts developing plans mostly on their own.
“They’re all doing it a bit differently,” Goldy said, “We also don’t have a sense for how every single one of them is doing it because included in an unfunded mandate is no accountability mechanisms, so we were not collecting the plans or reviewing them.”
At the local level, Goldy said school districts were able to find resources, including federal grants and help from the University of Washington. But money isn’t the only obstacle to putting plans together. Goldy said the topic of suicide is uncomfortable for teachers and school staff to approach, making it hard for schools to gain momentum on drafting plans.
“There’s so much stigma associated with suicide that often there’s a lot of resistance to doing this work just because of everyone’s own personal fears.”
But Goldy said it gets easier once teachers get past that discomfort.
“What’s really interesting is that once they dig into this work there increases the level of comfort among the adults to really talk about suicide and other mental health issues that we know, frankly, young people are more comfortable talking about than the adults right now,” Goldy said.
Officials in both Oregon and Washington say schools that are approaching suicide properly will include all kinds of staff - from bus drivers to administrators. Staff should understand that suicide isn’t simply a health issue for clinicians or a problem left to overstretched school counselors and social workers.
Goldy said school staff also need to think differently about students who might be struggling with their mental health.
“Sometimes our students who do well in the classroom and have good social skills, those students are at times at risk,” Goldy said. “We wouldn’t know if we weren’t doing the work to identify all of the risk factors for suicide, not just the assumed ones.”
OPB education reporter Elizabeth Miller contributed to this story.