Missouri educators learning to identify suicide warning signs

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 | 3:47 p.m. CST

ST. LOUIS — A University of Missouri program, Train the Trainer: Suicide Prevention, is enlisting high school teachers and administrators in an effort to prevent suicides of young people.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Wednesday that the program developed by psychologist and retired university professor Jim Koller teaches educators about the risk factors and warning signs. It also asks them to report potential problems to parents and authorities in much the same way they have reported signs of child abuse.

So far, the university has set up six training programs around the state with 22 school districts participating. The sessions are helping fine-tune Koller's prevention program before it is released nationally.

Suicide is the third-leading cause of death — after accidents and homicides — among people aged 15 to 24, according to the American Association of Suicidology.

At one recent workshop in Columbia, 75-year-old Del McMillen talked about her son, Dennis, who killed himself in 1999. He was 44, a family man with three children, but had shown warning signs much earlier.

"When he was a teenager, I wanted to get him evaluated — his great-grandmother was in a state hospital at Fulton, they called it the insane asylum in those days," McMillen said. "But his dad and grandparents absolutely refused. There was such a stigma back then."

The university has started an online course offering suicide prevention training for educational professionals, funded by grants from the Missouri Department of Mental Health and the National Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

"We were seeing a monumental lack of training for people in the trenches — teachers, administrators, school counselors," Koller said.

Suicide prevention experts say they welcome the effort.

"Teachers are a tremendous gatekeeper when talking about suicide prevention for youth," said Elizabeth Makulec, executive director of Kids Under Twenty One. "Parents often are too close in some cases to see and evaluate. And, unfortunately, there continues to be a tremendous stigma associated with mental health."

Koller's training includes a 195-page workbook explaining the important role teachers play in students' lives, and how those teachers are often the first to notice changes in behavior or social and emotional difficulties.

The training also seeks to protect teachers from possible civil litigation.

"One of the challenges is if a school isn't active enough in identifying the triggers — there's a lot of finger-pointing," Koller said. "There is a duty to warn."

The workbook identifies risk factors such as a divorce at home, a traumatic breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend and bullying, including cyberbullying. Studies have found that 90 percent of suicides involve people who have shown signs of depression.

Among the warning signs that a student may be suicidal is aggressive and impulsive behavior, or mood swings and angry outbursts.

Julie Harrison, who coordinates counseling for the 18,000 students in the Parkway School District in St. Louis County, attended a training session and will share information with the district's 80 counselors.

"We had two suicides this year," Harrison said. "We don't usually have any."

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