Lawmakers, Ed Officials Debate Teachers' Role In Suicide Prevention

Feb 2, 2017

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Since 2007, 19 states have adopted laws that mandate suicide awareness and prevention training for school educators. But Indiana health and education officials disagree on whether teachers should be the first line of defense.

Indiana requires new teachers to receive suicide prevention training, but a new bill would expand that requirement to all school employees who have ongoing contact with students.

Marion County Commission on Youth lobbyist Mindi Goodpaster says because school is the center of teens’ lives, it makes sense for prevention efforts to start there.

“The awareness piece for teachers is training and the understanding what is suicidal ideation, what is suicidal behavior,” she says. “How can we know how to get that child help through the channels, starting with the school, and then with the family, and then with the community?”

But Indiana Federation of Teachers lobbyist Sally Sloan says she’s worried about adding more required training to an already heavy load.

“We talk about this not having a fiscal, but time is money,” she says. “Whether we put a real dollar on that or not, it does cost time and that time does cost money.”

The bill simply adds the requirement, but doesn’t offer any money for the training. Author Julie Oltoff (R-Crown Point) says it would be up to schools to create and fund the training themselves.

Sloan says she’d like to see a state effort to consolidate the state’s myriad development requirements.

“That’s the concern I want to express for our members: layering on more and more to-do when we might be able to consolidate and get the information that we need for teachers who can better serve students,” says Sloan.

Sheila Klinker (D-Lafayette), herself a former teacher, says increased focus on testing outcomes has not only taken a mental health toll on students, but also taken money away from health resources.

“We spend so much time on getting kids prepared for tests and worrying about tests scores and evaluations and all that, we’ve let some of these things go in the last few years,” Klinker says.

Sloan says she’d like to see more counselors hired to address the issue of suicide prevention.

Academic research indicates that because suicides happen relatively rarely and are difficult to predict, evidence of how effective school-based training is at preventing suicide is inconclusive.

Studies do show gatekeepers such as school counselors and teachers benefit from consistent training, follow-up training and being connected with external mental health resources.

According to a 2015 survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state health department, close to 20 percent of the state’s high school students said they had considered suicide and half of those had made a suicide attempt.