Mental illness becomes a fatal illness when it leads to someone taking their own life.
Like many other behavioral health agencies, New Horizons Mental Health Services sees the devastating effects of suicide every year. Effects that leave loved ones in anguish and communities hurting. But one thing about suicide is that it’s preventable. Putting an end to it begins with conversation, education, honesty and professional support.
While risk of suicide is prevalent among all age groups, prevention efforts are becoming more common among youth starting in the classroom.
One prevention initiative New Horizons adopted is called Signs of Suicide (SOS), an evidence-based, national program completed in a single class period that improves students’ knowledge, understanding and attitudes about suicide and depression, including warning signs and behaviors to look for.
“A large focus of the SOS program is teaching kids to not only identify these feelings and behaviors within themselves but also arm them to identify warning signs they’re seeing in a friend,” Renee Klautky, SOS and Contract Development Specialist for New Horizons, said.
The program uses the acronym ACT®:
In addition to the education curriculum, the SOS program offers a brief depression screening students may take on their tablets at the end of the course. Once the screenings are complete, the results automatically translate into an Excel sheet for Klautky’s review. If a screening comes back positive, she meets one-on-one with the student for further assessment. Klautky said typically 40-45% of students screen high enough to require a follow up meeting.
“When I bring the student in, I ask what’s going on, if they need to see someone, or what things at home are like,” Klautky said. “Next steps definitely vary – it ranges from us giving coping skills and talking therapy options, to contacting parents or guardians or even sending them to the hospital if urgent.”
After she’s conducted all necessary follow up meetings, Klautky sends the school guidance counselors a high-level description of the conversation and next steps for the child, ensuring the counselors are fully aware of any student who may need additional support. Then, she’s on to the next school.
While the Ohio-based organization’s services expand well beyond the SOS program, including substance use, mobile crisis response, a new Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinic (CCBHC) and more, the SOS program has helped bridge a connection with middle school and high school students in their community who may not have gotten professional help without SOS.
In 2019, New Horizons saw 3,500 students in the SOS program. While the COVID-19 pandemic shifted some of the logistics, including adding virtual options, the New Horizons team still gave the presentation to more than 2,500 kids in 2020. And Klautky only plans to grow the program further.
With a recent increase in funding, New Horizons is now offering the program in two additional schools, putting them in every school in Fairfield County. Additional staffing granted through the funding will also help the team intensify the program, meaning they will have the bandwidth to see more students who scores weren’t as high, but raised concern.
New Horizons is also looking to implement more than one follow-up meeting post SOS assessment in hopes of staying involved and being more active in the students’ journey.
“We want to help these kids as much as we can,” Klautky said. “Sometimes the single follow up isn’t enough or we aren’t seeing as many students for a follow up as we’d like. The more we grow, the better we can support the schools and the kids.”
Conversation is key
Having honest and open dialogue is the best way to combat any stigma or uncertainty that often still linger around mental health and suicide. Luckily, Klautky usually doesn’t have too much trouble getting the kids to open up.
“I’m pleasantly surprised and excited how open and honest the kids are,” she said. “I think it’s because they’re getting programs like this at an early age. They are taught that it’s okay to talk about these things, when in the past that hasn’t always been the case.”
There has also been a false perception that talking openly about depression and suicide might lead to suicidal behavior – as if saying the words might plant a seed in someone’s mind. Klautky ensures this is not the case. In fact, directly talking about it is the best response. Direct questions demand direct answers.
“If you’re worried about someone, it’s okay to point blank ask ‘Do you want to kill yourself?’” She said. “Suicide is not a bad word; we can and need to talk about it.”
While Suicide Prevention Awareness Month is coming to a close, that does not mean the conversations, education and awareness should cease. Mental health should be treated the same way as physical health – when something is wrong, listen to your mind and body, and seek professional help when necessary.
No one is immune to mental health challenges; reach out to others, ask for help when you need it and give a little grace when working through difficult times. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or reach out to a local mental health professional.
Looking to offer more hands-on support? Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) certification teaches individuals how to offer support to someone who may be experiencing a mental health or substance use related crisis. Similar to First Aid and CPR trainings, MHFA focuses on increasing emergency preparedness for individuals and organizations alike. Visit MHFA to find an on-site or virtual class.
Along with MHFA, the QPR Institute also offers training regarding how to recognize the warning signs of a suicide crisis and how to question, persuade, and refer someone to help – QPR.
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