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Exeter lawmaker won’t give up on suicide-prevention education

Staff Report
February 12. 2014 10:09PM

CONCORD — An Exeter state representative said opponents of House Bill 1588, to require suicide-prevention education in schools, are both misinformed and misguided.

Rep. Donna Schlachman, D-Exeter, said the Education Committee, split on party lines, voted the bill inexpedient to legislate.

Schlachman said she will try to persuade her fellow House members to reverse the recommendation and pass the bill.

She said she thinks a financial estimate for the bill was misleading. She also said talking about suicide doesn’t cause it. It can prevent it.

Committee member Ralph Boehm, R-Hillsborough , who opposed the bill, said it’s an unfunded mandate issue. “There would have been a cost to school districts for the training,” he said, because although the trainer would be offered for free, teachers and others taking the training would expect to be paid.

The state education department’s financial note estimated the cost for fiscal year 2015 could be as high as $2.4 million. But Schlachman said it would appear from the financial note that the department envisioned creating a lengthy and complex program that would require great skill to present.

Boehm also said: “Rules already exist for this topic.” Schlachman agreed. When the education department updated its rules a few years ago, suicide-prevention education was included, she said, but implementation wasn’t specified.

She said a May 2013 survey done by the New Hampshire School Administrators Association determined 85 percent of school districts do not have a policy in place regarding suicide-prevention training. Seventy-five percent said they would benefit by such training.

The wheel doesn’t need to be reinvented. “We have the capability within the state,” she said, with existing programs, including through the University of New Hampshire.

Schlachman and Tara Holmes Ball, an Exeter mother whose 14-year-old son committed suicide in 2011, say statistics show that suicide is the second leading cause of death for the 10-to-24 age group. Only accidents cause more deaths in that age group.

“We can’t prevent accidents, but we can prevent (suicides),” Schlachman said. “We need this.”

But Boehm said statistics show the rate for 11- to 18-year-olds is down and that it’s the 18- to 24-year-old group that has a high rate — and that’s post high school. “When do we stop forcing social ills on the school system?” he asked.

Ball said some opponents of suicide-prevention education believe talking about suicide encourages it. “What it actually does is open a dialog,” said Ball, and that can prevent suicide. She said 90 percent of the time, the person contemplating suicide gives clues, but if they aren’t recognized, people can’t help the person in time.

She said those who focus solely on bullying as a cause of suicide ignore that there are many reasons children become depressed and kill themselves. “Depression can be something that’s inherent ... a chemical imbalance,” she said. Or it can be the result of expectations, family situations or traumatic experiences. She said there are so many pressures on young people today. “Kids are struggling,” she said.

If students are given the tools to recognize warning signs, she said, they can recognize them in their contemporaries and, possibly, in themselves.

The focus of suicide-prevention education is recognition of risk, not assessment of risk, said Ball. “We want people to learn how to recognize individuals at risk and how to get them connected with help.”

A bonus is that learning how to recognize a person at risk of suicide is likely to help identify youth at risk for substance misuse, domestic violence, teen pregnancy and other high-risk behaviors, said Ball.

Both Ball and Schlachman say other states have passed similar laws, and the education has paid off with decreased suicide rates.

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