The growing prevalence of online bullying, and a rise in New Jersey youth taking their own lives, has prompted calls by state lawmakers for teachers to take preventative measures against teen suicide that go beyond what current laws require.
A bipartisan group of legislators recently proposed a bill that would require public schoolteachers and staff members to receive two hours of suicide prevention training from a licensed health care professional every year.
The proposal — a more stringent version of a current law that requires two hours of instruction over five years — has drawn the ire of some educators who say they already have little time to teach. But New Jersey lawmakers say they want all hands on deck when it comes to matters of students’ mental health.
“Effective suicide prevention among teens requires a full-court press from the community,” Troy Singleton, a Democratic assemblyman and the legislation’s co-sponsor, told the Associated Press.
Singleton has cause for concern. Five out of every 100,000 young people in the Garden State between the age of 10 and 24 commit suicide annually, according to the data collected by the New Jersey Department of Children and Families. In the United States, that rate stands at nearly eight for every 100,000 young people, making it the third leading cause of death for young Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Teen suicide doesn’t occur by happenstance. Rather, it’s often a result of unmitigated mental ailments like depression. More than 90 percent of young people who commit suicide often suffer from depression, which may stem from feelings of worthlessness during a period of significant physical, mental, and emotional development. According to the National Institute on Mental Health, more than 10 percent of young people develop a depressive disorder before the age of 18.
Most of these feelings may unravel in school, an environment where students spend a significant amount of time. That’s why health officials have increasingly turned to teachers as aides in recognizing warning signs, educating students about depression, talking among one another about what they see in the classroom, and connecting at-risk youngsters with resources that aid in their mental health recovery.
New Jersey has led that charge, becoming the first state in the country to implement the training requirement for teachers in 2006. In the years after, nearly two dozen states followed, including Alaska, Kentucky, Illinois, Maine, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming. In states that don’t obligate educators to master teen suicide prevention techniques, teachers are encouraged to participate in such activities through grants and access to resources that they could use on their own accord. Such is the case in Alabama, California, Maryland, New York and Wisconsin.
These programs have proven effective, specifically because they can provide teachers with a baseline understanding of teen depression that helps them address these issues with their students’ best interests in mind.
A study released earlier this month confirmed that teacher-intervention programs work because students ultimately don’t feel stigmatized when their teachers know how to empathetically address possible mental ailments. In the study, programs that trained teachers to recognize at-risk students, created curriculum for students centered on coping skills, and had mental health professionals on call made the most headway in reducing instances of suicide.
Since the 2006 law went into effect, New Jersey’s youth suicide rate fell twice to below 4 per 100,000 people. The new suicide prevention bill under discussion has gained some support from mental health advocacy organizations, including the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, based in New Jersey. As lawmakers and teachers in New Jersey mull over the details of the new bill, some people have expressed a desire to see bus drivers and cafeteria personnel included in the language of the legislation so that the approach toward preventing teen suicide becomes more holistic.