COLUMBIA, Mo. –Suicide is the third leading cause of death for adolescents between the ages of 10 and 24. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 percent of students in grades 9 through 12 reported that they seriously considered suicide in the past year. However, many stigmas about mental illnesses and suicide exist, making the discussion about suicide uncomfortable. To address these issues, the University of Missouri has developed an online suicide prevention course for educators and developed the first statewide training program called “Train the Trainer.”
“Many suicidal students will likely go to a teacher, coach or janitor before they go to a school counselor,” said James Koller, co-director of the Center for the Advancement of Mental Health Practices in the Schools and professor of educational, school and counseling psychology in the MU College of Education. “Educators most often serve as gatekeepers. They are the ones interacting with students on a daily basis and are more likely to notice changes in behavior or attitude. Yet, they often have a lack of training to deal with these issues. Schools most often train their teachers how to react to suicides but not how to prevent them.”
The “Train the Trainer” program and the online course are the result of a three-year grant Koller received from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in conjunction with the Missouri Department of Mental Health. Both the program and the course will help educators and other gatekeepers identify risk factors and warnings and respond to students who ask for help or appear to be at risk. Risk factors include a divorce in the family, bullying or a traumatic breakup with a girlfriend or boyfriend.
“For most, suicide is a process with triggers and warning signs,” Koller said. “Around 90 percent of those who commit or attempt suicide have a classified mental disorder. We are seeing an increase of suicidal thoughts in much younger children.”
Emotional stability is not something that can be easily learned. It is important to teach adolescents resiliency and other protective factors, Koller said. Koller and his team reviewed more than 2,000 studies that examined suicide prevention. From his research, he developed a 195-page workbook with different sections that address the multi-faceted issues of suicide prevention and response.
“Suicide is a pervasive, all-encompassing problem that is hard to deal with and define, let alone prevent,” Koller said. “Many suicide prevention programs already exist, but you can’t learn everything you need to know in 10 minutes. This is why a more comprehensive approach is needed.”
The “Train the Trainer” program invites leaders in the school districts to attend training sessions with Koller. Koller hopes that these leaders can educate the faculty and staff in their school districts.
“Too many school districts don’t have a suicide policy set in place, or if they do, teachers may not be aware of them,” Koller said. “Many school district policies are reactive and do little to prevent suicide. Our whole focus is to be preventative, rather than waiting for the problem.”
The graduate-level online course for educators is a three credit-hour course offered through the MU Center for Distance and Independent Study.
“The Center for Distance and Independent Study has worked closely with Dr. Koller to design this graduate-level course with maximum flexibility for students,” said Gera Burton, associate director for Center for Distance and Independent Study. “Dr. Koller approaches the subject matter with sensitivity so that students come away with practical skills to handle a variety of difficult situations.”
Kelsey Jackson, JacksonKN@missouri.edu, (573) 882-8353