Empire editorial: The next steps in addressing suicide

Posted: Sunday, April 06, 2008

Last week, we challenged the community - both kids and adults - to start a conversation about teen suicide in an effort to prevent it. But breaking the silence about suicide is only one step in addressing this complex problem.

So, what are the next steps we can take as a community?

First, we can call on lawmakers to help fund the social services that are in short supply - affordable counseling, more support staff and a hospital unit dedicated to treating teens with mental health and substance abuse problems. Fortunately we live in a small community in a very rich state, so we have the opportunity to affect real change when it comes to social services.

Bartlett Regional Hospital has a plan for a behavioral health unit for young people that would feature a locked, in-patient treatment center, but it hasn't yet received the needed funding. Until it does and a new unit is built, kids are stuck in a terrible cycle: When they attempt suicide, they go to the hospital emergency room where they are stabilized before being released back home or sent to an out-of-state treatment facility.

Either way, teens can end up returning into the same poisonous environment that may have caused their problems in the first place. A behavioral health unit would help break this cycle.

Bartlett is looking to fund its behavioral health unit through state grants, but so far it doesn't have the money. We call on Juneau's delegation to help make the unit a reality by fast-tracking the funds necessary for the construction as well as the staffing for the proposed facility.

Second, we, as a community, should push for mental health to be treated the same way as physical health. The stigma surrounding suicide can be eliminated in part through better health education. Already, principals in the Juneau School District have met to discuss different national curriculums that address suicide and depression. A decision about which curriculum to use is expected later this month.

But picking a curriculum is just a start. The schools will have to figure out how to implement the curriculum. Our high schools will have to consider whether one discussion on suicide and depression in ninth grade is enough, or whether there should be a second one in 11th or 12th grade when students are more mature. These are issues that parents should weigh in on.

Parent action on this issue is vital if we are to prevent teen suicide. If parents educate themselves on the signs and symptoms of depression, they could help save a life. Juneau needs to develop and maintain the resources needed to educate parents.

As a community, we've hopefully started the conversation about teen suicide. But it's up to us to make sure talk leads to action.

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