Juneau students to be taught suicide awareness

New curriculum will screen for depression

Posted: Sunday, November 23, 2008

Starting next month, students in the Juneau School District will be taught a one-day unit on depression and suicide awareness that also aims to identify those who might be depressed or at risk for suicide.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

The program, called Signs of Suicide or SOS, introduces students to the basics of mental health awareness and screens them through a series of questions for depression or suicide ideation.

SOS is nationally recognized and has been used in an Anchorage-area school district for five years.

"The Mat-Su district has not lost any child to suicide that's gone through the program," said Brendan Kiernan, SOS program coordinator for the Juneau School District and chairman of the Juneau Community Suicide Prevention Task Force.

Every freshman in the school district and all students at Yaakoosge Daakahidi are set to be taught the unit and screened by the end of the school year.

The program will start at Thunder Mountain High School next month, then move to Juneau-Douglas High School in January and the alternative high school at the end of March or early April.

Parents will be notified by mail two weeks prior and can opt their children out of the mental health screening by signing a form. Notices to Thunder Mountain High School parents were sent out Friday.

The program with the help of a video teaches kids how to notice the symptoms of depression and suicidal thoughts in themselves or their friends. It uses the acronym ACT (Acknowledge, Care and Tell) to try to debunk secrecy among teenagers and encourage them to seek help.

"We know that you guys will talk to each other and you will know when another student is in trouble long before we will," notes for the classroom presentation read. "The purpose of ACT is to help teens help teens so that another suicide never happens in Juneau."

School counselors and other mental health professionals in Juneau will teach classes and screen students. Those who show symptoms of major depression or risk of suicide will be interviewed and a parent will be notified that day. If a student is imminently at risk for suicide, the Juneau Alliance on Mental Illness will be called to the school.

Kiernan said that based on Mat-Su's program, he expects about 20 percent of students to receive a follow-up interview. One percent may show imminent risk of suicide, he said.

Kiernan was joined by four additional members of the task force earlier this year to attend classroom sessions in the Anchorage area and observe how SOS works.

Mary Tonsmeire, director of the teen health centers at both local high schools, said she was impressed by sessions she attended in Mat-Su that involved students who showed signs of depression.

"The counselor ended up getting a caring relationship with the parent, and the parent got important information about their child and how to deal with it," she said. "It was a very caring intervention."

Professionals who might be referred students have been made aware that the screening will take place, Kiernan said. Many of them attended a meeting Thursday night that introduced the program and explained the district's plans.

The program is funded by a state grant awarded earlier this year to the school district.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or e-mail kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.

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