Public school teachers learn to spot hints of suicide through MU program

Wednesday, December 14, 2011 | 9:03 p.m. CST; updated 5:35 p.m. CST, Tuesday, December 20, 2011
John Bunten got tattoos down the back of his arms after recovering from a suicide attempt last year. The tattoos are meant to honor life and recall the religious faith that has always been a part of his life.

*CORRECTION: Ninety percent of people who take their own lives suffer from an untreated mental disorder. An earlier version of this article misstated the statistic.

COLUMBIA – James Koller has saved a life.

Two years ago, the professor emeritus in the MU College of Education gave a talk about suicide prevention in Whitehorse, capital of Canada's Yukon province.


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When he finished, a woman came up to talk to him.

"She said, ‘Dr. Koller, I was planning to kill myself,’" he recalled.

The woman told him she had been planning suicide for weeks and changed her mind after hearing him talk. With help, Koller said she has fully recovered.

For some, there is no second chance.

According to a 2007 Centers for Disease Control report, suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds, accounting for 12 percent of all deaths annually in that age group.

Recognizing the growing need for training in suicide prevention and understanding mental health issues impacting students, the Mental Health Leadership Academy at MU was established five years ago.

It was an outgrowth of the MU Partnership for Educational Renewal, which brings together public schools, campus resources and state education leadership.

The academy has trained teachers, administrators, counselors and other K-12 faculty to recognize the warning signs of suicide, said Dan Lowry, co-director of the program. Columbia's public schools have also participated.

Previous training concentrated on reactions to suicide after it happened, Lowry said.

"We had never had a class on how to identify, deal with and prevent students and even faculty members from taking their lives," he said.

This fall, the academy received the Nicholas Michelli Award for Promoting Social Justice, one of the highest recognitions in education on the national level.

Before its founding, a two-year study conducted through the College of Education looked at mental health issues and their effects on students.

Koller, one of the researchers, collected data and interviewed families of suicide victims. The research found that focusing on suicide prevention is much more important than dealing with the aftermath.

"It is estimated that for every suicide death, there are about 25 attempted suicides," he wrote in the study.

Today, the academy teaches two of the most key aspects of suicide prevention: recognizing the signs of suicide and dealing with the actual attempt.

Recognizing the signs

John Bunten’s parents were shocked when they heard about their son’s suicide attempt.

"They kept asking ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’" Bunten said.

The 20-year-old former MU student was wearing a white, short-sleeved soccer shirt and black pants.

Under the shirt, both arms had tattoos. One read "Faith," the other, "Honor."

"They all mean something toward life," he said.

A little more than a year ago, Bunten was lying on a hospital bed.

He tried to commit suicide on Sept. 2, 2010. His parents discovered him and rushed him to the hospital in time to save his life.

Bunten had been struggling with depression for four years before he attempted suicide. He said he had not been communicating enough with his friends and family.

In fact, minutes before his attempt, he shared his plan with a friend, but the friend didn’t believe him.

"I put on such a good, fixed smile, acted so fake toward my family," Bunten said.

There were, however, traceable signs.

Bunten had loved sports and played almost every kind. By his junior year of high school, he had quit basketball. By senior year, he had quit football and track.

"It wasn’t fun anymore. It's just, ‘Crap, I gotta go to practice,’" he said. "The game wasn’t worth it for me."

An important warning sign of suicide is when someone gives up a hobby or interest or has a change in daily behavior, Koller said. 

Other warning signs are lack of concern about personal welfare, changes in social patterns and difficulty in concentration.

Years ago, Koller received a set of sports trophies from an old friend, read it as a warning sign and immediately summoned help.

Dealing with the elephant in the room

It's not enough just to recognize the signs. A critical aspect of suicide prevention is being able to address it, Koller said.

Because of guilt or shame, families often keep suicides a secret, he said.

"Most families have individuals whose problems they don’t necessarily want to talk about," Koller said. "We always want to talk about the good stuff, not the bad stuff."

Bunten agreed.

"If suicide awareness were brought up as much as breast cancer awareness, it’ll be prevented much better," he said.

Beth Eiken, who works in the MU School of Medicine, also said it’s vital to get the subject on the table.

Eiken lost her son, Stuart, in 2009.

He was a Rock Bridge High School senior and a member of the football team, but he was struggling mentally.

Eiken described him as "a really quiet person (who) didn’t want other people to know his problems and to burden others with his problems."

He had always been a strong-willed child, which she thought would pull him through a crisis.

She still asks "Why?" from time to time, but she has since educated herself about suicide prevention.

If Eiken had known what she knows now, she believes she could have done a lot more for her son.

"If I could do things differently, I definitely would have provided more support for him," she said. "It’s important to build a strong support system to kids who are suffering … to create a safety net."

Education is the key, especially for the community at large, she said. It can help reduce the stigma and fear around suicide.

One of the biggest myths is that people who talk about suicide do not actually attempt suicide and talking about it with them will only encourage them, Koller said.

"People don’t want to talk about it. … (They) think youth in our community take their own lives because they are crazy," Eiken said. "That’s not the case."

One factor could be an untreated disease, such as depression or bipolar disorder. Ninety percent of people who take their own lives suffer from an untreated mental disorder*, Eiken said. Most people are unaware of that.

Bunten said he didn’t feel comfortable talking about his troubles.

"You feel like you are alone, nobody will understand what you’ll say," he said. "You change into a different person. … If you can’t even accept yourself, how can others accept you?

But, he said, "thousands of kids out there understand exactly what I’m going through."

Teachers really are the ones who should be looking for signs, Bunten said.

"The counselors see the students about once a week. Teachers see them every day."

How suicide prevention training works

Three years ago, the Parkway School District in Chesterfield had no systematic way to respond to suicides, said Julie Harrison, the coordinator of guidance and counseling at Parkway.

"We were trying to make decisions about things every single time it came up and didn’t have a plan beforehand," she said.

Furthermore, the school district had been hesitant to talk about suicide, Harrison said.

"Nobody wanted to do it, it’s too depressing a topic," she said. "There’s a stigma of dealing with suicide."

Koller was invited to the district for a two-day workshop for counselors, teachers, social workers and officers.

After the training, Parkway set up health classes and ways to talk to students about depression as early as middle school, Harrison said. Schools also set up connections to the broader community, making it easier for teens to seek help.

Other resources at MU

MU initiated an annual suicide prevention week last year following high-profile cases on college campuses, including at the University of Texas and Rutgers University, according to a previous Missourian report.

This year, Suicide Prevention Week took place from Nov. 7 to 11. Events included a keynote speaker, suicide prevention training and a film screening.

"The week highlights a lot of the resources available on campus," said Christy Hutton of the MU Counseling Center staff.

MU also has a nationally recognized suicide prevention training program called Question, Persuade, Refer. The hour-long class is open to students, staff and faculty.

It teaches participants how to recognize suicide warning signs, how to respond and how to refer victims to appropriate resources.

"It helps if you know in advance what to do," Eiken said. "Suicide is 100 percent preventable."

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