The Beloit School District is expanding the Signs of Suicide (SOS) prevention program currently in place at the middle schools to Beloit Memorial High School (BMHS) this year in order to combat teen suicide.
SOS teaches kids and adults about the symptoms of suicide and how to respond, by stressing acknowledgment, care and telling of the problem. The connection between alcohol and drug abuse and suicide will be emphasized in the curriculum, and in December staff at BMHS will have a 30-minute discussion on youth suicide. There will also be gatekeeper training held for middle school staff by the end of January.
State law requires schools to educate kids about suicide prevention as part of health class, and another state law requires the school district notify staff of resources available on suicide prevention, according to John Humphries, executive director of Pupil Services.
Teen deaths by suicide rates are generally higher in Rock County than the state average.
According to Wisconsin Department of Health Services data, emergency room visits due to self-inflicted injuries for 10-19-year-olds in Rock County were 239 per 100,000 youth, 28 percent higher than the state average of 173 emergency room visits per 100,000 youth.
The number of Rock County 10-19-year-olds who committed suicide during the past 10 years was 15, or a rate of 6.7 suicides per 100,000 youth. That figure is higher than the state rate of 5.89 suicides by 100,000 youth. Humphries added that number of 15 teen suicides in Rock County may even be higher, since some suicides may be reported as accidents.
Wisconsin typically has a higher suicide rate than the national average. Only two years out of 25 years, from 1981-2006, did Wisconsin's teen suicide rate drop below the national average. Humphries said the trend is attributed to three main factors in Wisconsin - a high rate of binge drinking, access to firearms, a high number of kids with mental health challenges, and a stigma for those students seeking support for mental health issues.
Binge drinking in Wisconsin is highly correlated to suicide attempts, according to information from the Department of Public Instruction (DPI). In 2007, the Wisconsin rate of binge drinking was the highest among the nation's youth, and remained high in 2008.
"We all have a self preservation instinct, no one wants to die. If one is drunk or high, he or she can get over the self preservation instinct and not adequately assess risks," Humphries said.
According to DPI information, limited access to the means for suicide provides the most significant drop in suicide rates. Most often, children use a parent's gun so safe storage of firearms is encouraged. Wisconsin boys used guns for suicide nine times as often as girls.
Because of Wisconsin's teen suicides, the state started emphasizing its tool kit for prevention, SOS.
The good news is that although teen suicide is still an issue, data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services indicated that the 2008 suicide rate was the second lowest in 20 years, and shows a strong 9-year downward trend.
Humphries said that a survey of 9th and 11th graders last year at Beloit Memorial High School revealed that 30 percent of students said they were so sad or hopeless for two weeks or more that they stopped doing typical activities.
Some of the early warning signs of suicide, according to DPI, are a decline in school work, withdrawal from social activities, personal changes, changes in eating and sleeping patterns and a preoccupation with death.
"If they are talking about it they are thinking about it," Humphries said.
More urgent warning signs are threats about hurting oneself, a specific plan, impulsive anger, rebellious behavior, giving away possessions and feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and worthlessness.
In high school Humphries said that impulsive and violent actions can be an indicator that a student is planning to commit suicide and doesn't care about consequences. He added one week before a suicide attempt, someone will often have a major sleep disturbance.
Humphries said school staff contacting Pupil Services staff can help reduce suicide. Approximately 90 percent of people who make non-lethal suicide attempts to not go on to commit suicide, partly because they usually receive professional help. Antidepressants combined with cognitive behavior therapy are very effecting in improving mental health and preventing suicide, Humphries said.