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Suicide and Mental Health: New Resources Inform Teachers About Warning Signs

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A coalition of organizations have partnered to develop online training materials that will help teachers of students as young as elementary school recognize and respond to early warning signs for suicide and mental health issues.

"Signs Matter: Early Detection" was released today by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in partnership with LEGAL ONE, which is a provider of school law training for educators, and Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care.

The aim is not to expand the role of teachers into mental health and psychology, said Dr. Christine Moutier, chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Rather, the organizations want to recognize the role teachers already play as supporters of struggling students by helping them understand when and how to refer students to school counselors and mental health professionals for more intensive conversations about their needs, Dr. Moutier said in a phone interview.

"Their eyes are on these kids so when they notice those difference in behavior patterns, it probably means something," she said. 

Twenty-four states now mandate some kind of suicide prevention training for school personnel. Most recently, Georgia and Maryland passed such laws.

Teachers in those states can complete the online course—offered at a sliding fee that's as low as $3 per person depending on the number of participants—for professional development credits.

Warning Signs

While news coverage of youth suicide largely focuses on intervening in teen suicide clusters, experts say there is a great unmet need for prevention resources, including training and access to mental health professionals.

The signs of mental health distress can vary depending on the student, Dr. Moutier said.

Schools may be more familiar with more obvious cases of need—students who have expressed suicidal thoughts, discussed extreme stress with school staff, or are experiencing a distressing event like a parents' divorce, she said.

But the new materials include examples of less obvious cases, including some students who may be actively working to hide their struggles from adults. They include an elementary school student, a high achieving high school student, and a middle school student struggling with bullying because of his sexual orientation.

Signs that a student needs assistance could include open requests for help and sudden changes in school attendance habits, she said. And a typically outgoing student undergoing distress may begin refusing to make eye contact or conversation. In some cases, mental health issues could even look like defiant behavior, Dr. Moutier said.

You can read more about the materials at www.afsp.org/signsmatter.

Further reading on suicide:

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