When the staff at Soldotna High School discussed suicide as part of a newly mandated training requirement, all of them shared a personal story.
“We let the teachers discuss experiences in their lives; people who had either committed or talked about committing (suicide). And walking around the room listening to the conversations, there were a lot stories about students or friends … who had affected their lives,” said Erin Neisinger, Soldotna High School counselor.
A Senate bill passed earlier this year during the legislative session prompted school districts across Alaska, including the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, to initiate mandatory suicide training for secondary school employees.
Sen. Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage, sponsored Senate Bill 137, the Jason Flatt Act. The bill requires at least two hours of training for school personnel who work with students in grades seven through 12; it became law on Aug. 21.
The Legislature appropriated $450,000 toward school-based suicide prevention efforts for fiscal year 2013, said Kate Burkhart, executive director of the Statewide Suicide Prevention Council, in an email.
“It’s the first time that I’m aware of, or at least in a really long time, that any money for suicide prevention has come to the (Alaska) Department of Education,” said Sharon Fishel, counseling and suicide prevention coordinator at the state Department of Education & Early Development.
The suicide rate for Alaskans age 15-24 was 46 per 100,000 people in 2010. Nationally, the rates are recorded at different age groups, but the gap is apparent, with 7.8 per 100,000 people for age 15-19 and 12.5 per 100,000 people for age 20-24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Prior to the Senate bill’s passage, the school district’s teachers did not receive suicide training, said Margaret Griffin, another Soldotna High School counselor.
Until last month, the state lacked approved suicide-prevention materials. Lawmakers chose the Jason Foundation — from which SB137 got its name — to meet the two-hour requirement, and the state sent out the organization’s materials to each secondary school in late July.
School administrators within the borough focused this first year of mandatory training on awareness, as a stigma is often associated with suicide, Neisinger said.
“Doing this training grants the staff more skills and confidence to say something about (suicide); a lot of times people aren’t comfortable addressing the problem with students,” she said.
The school district has had in-house protocols for students it believes are at-risk of harming themselves or others established for some time.
The Jason Foundation materials are separated into seven modules. The first module is a series of videos about suicide awareness and outreach. Staff can watch the videos and take an online quiz afterward.
Neisinger and Griffin decided to facilitate a discussion about the module at their high school.
“It was a bit more personal than just pressing play on a video,” Griffin said.
Teachers were receptive to the seminar approach, they said. Following the training, teachers emailed the counselors and thanked them for taking the training one step further than required.
Griffin said her husband, a local middle school teacher, and other district staff have reacted positively toward the video-and-quiz format.
Looking forward, Neisinger said she would like to examine other options and involve students in the training — the Jason Foundation also offers materials for students.
She would like to look into the web-based Kognito At-Risk materials, another program approved in September as the result of the a joint advocacy effort of the Prevention Council, the Alaska Mental Health Board and the Alaska Association of Student Governments.
Kognito uses virtual role-playing scenarios to train personnel on how to identify and engage students who are contemplating suicide. But the new law requires suicide training for middle school as well as high school employees, and Kognito is intended for use only in high schools.
“I want to look at Kognito and compare the two,” Neisinger said.
An issue with the current program is its focus on a single module. Neisinger hopes that throughout the school year, they will reference back to the Jason Foundation materials to gauge its effectiveness, she said.
Overall, the counselors agreed that the teachers appreciated the new training.
“We have to do all these mandatory trainings each year, and we didn’t want them to see it as a negative thing, as just another training,” Griffin said. “We wanted it to be positive and meaningful.”
Jerzy Shedlock is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.