Even up close, he looked happy and cute, like many of the other 9-year-olds in his fourth grade class. He giggled. Played soccer at recess. He seemed content, sporting a big smile, definitely wasn’t withdrawn or angry, or so his teacher — the school’s social worker — told me.
Nobody knows exactly what he was thinking or feeling at the time, but one day, during library time, while other kids were checking out their weekly books, he told his teacher he wanted to kill himself. In those very words.
That someone his age could be suicidal surprised even me, a school social worker trained in suicide prevention. I wondered if he even knew what killing yourself meant. I asked him a few questions as he played with the Legos in my office toy box, including: Did he tell his teacher he wanted to kill himself? Yes. Did he still want to do that? No. Per the school district’s protocol I called the mental health crisis team who sent someone to talk to him further.
To those who study Nevada’s suicide statistics, the reality of young people ending their own lives is startling. In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control determined suicide was the leading cause of death for Nevadans aged 12-19.
And the numbers of Nevada youth who took their own lives doubled between 2017 and 2018 according to the Nevada Office of Suicide Prevention. Nevada’s climbing rate of suicide among minors was 2.1 per 100,000 children and teens in 2017, and 3.8 per 100,00 in 2018.
In 2017, 14 Nevada middle schoolers made a suicide pact to die together. Fortunately adults found out and intervened.
In layman’s terms, the situation is bad. Really bad.
But for what it’s worth, our state’s legislature came through this session, with the passage of AB 114 and SB 204, two bills that address suicide prevention training in all of Nevada’s school districts. The first one, proposed by Assemblyman Jon Ellison, R-Elko, requires all districts to evaluate their suicide training programs (or lack of) and provide reports to Nevada’s Department of Education. The second one actually requires all school staff to get the training.
As someone with bipolar disorder, who’s faced suicide issues throughout my own life, I know mental health issues can seem the worst when you’re young, confused, not sure why you’re feeling this or that and embarrassed to talk about it, especially with adults.
During my first year of college — I was 18 — I had no idea why I was consistently depressed, sad or glum. I had never heard of the term bipolar and as a result I ended up flunking all but two classes. The highlight of my year was getting a letter in the mail stating the university wasn’t expelling me.
The second year a kind and compassionate academic adviser was there to help. I talked about my feelings of depression with him. I didn’t tell my parents. Suicide is a VERY hard topic for people to talk about. I get it.
I admit, until SB 204 passed in the Assembly last Tuesday (May 28) I was worried. Despite what you’d think, there were school districts who argued against mandated trainings, stating teachers are too busy and districts are too poor to pay substitutes during training time. So Ellison’s AB 114, which originally proposed statewide teacher trainings, got watered down and passed as a bill about mandated reports.
Seriously? Too busy to learn how to save lives? We’re talking about two hours out of the school year — enough time to learn some suicide prevention basics: warning signs, facts and myths, some general information. Teachers don’t need therapy training. They have school counselors for that.
Lynette Vega is a teacher in Elko whose 20-something-year old daughter, a veteran, died by suicide. Vega now runs a group called Zero Suicide Elko County and voluntarily teaches suicide prevention to students. Other educators should follow suit.
The mom of that 9-year-old boy was grateful the school called her. That’s why offering parents the opportunity to learn about suicide prevention is also a good thing. Many schools offer parent nights with information about drug and alcohol, bullying and other important issues.
Back in the legislature, state senators woke up and passed SB 204, a bill similar to the original one proposed by Ellison. This bill also prevailed in the Assembly, with nine — all Republicans — voting against it.
These training requirements aren’t all new. The legislature passed similar laws in 2015 and 2017 requiring mental health providers, doctors and other health care professionals in Nevada to take suicide prevention training. As a social worker, I have to take them. They’re often free or low cost.
These days suicide prevention training isn’t just available in person, but via online programs that offer training guides. YouTube is awash with educational videos school staff could watch and discuss with their school’s counselor, social worker, or even nurse. And though the bills don’t address it, let’s get students involved. There are endless suicide prevention programs for students — often led by their peers. Or why can’t schools put up suicide prevention posters — preferably made by students themselves — in their classrooms? Or have a mental health week, like they do for homecoming?
We know a lot of things about suicide: It’s preventable. It’s an impulsive move and there often are warning signs — depression, sadness, a major change in behavior. Suicidal individuals want to talk to someone. They don’t want to die. They want help, whether from a school teacher, a friend, or the Crisis Support Services of Nevada which now answers text messages and emails, and not just the phone. Take the case of that seemingly happy-go-lucky 4th grader in my school. Confiding in a teacher — as he did — was a first step to getting help.
So thank you members of the Legislature who voted for these bills. Young Nevadans need help. Teachers can help. Training them might make the ultimate difference in a young person’s life. Literally.
If you or someone else is in need of help for a crisis, the Crisis Support Services of Nevada can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 or texts can be sent to CARE 839863.
Kim Palchikoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org