Suicide prevention education in school

What do you know about suicide? What do you think you know about it?

Betsy Sobkowski, Warren Area High School counselor, said, in the past three years, part of her job has been to try to raise awareness and educate students about suicide in an attempt to prevent it.

For instance, said Sobkowski, suicide surpasses car accidents as the cause of death in students ages 15 to 19. She also said that contrary to popular belief, it’s often the people who don’t talk about suicide who are the most serious about it.

Depression and anxiety, said Sobkowski, are the most common symptoms of a larger problem. Being aware of what those symptoms are, she said, is integral to helping prevent a problem from coming to the point where the person suffering from them attempts suicide. Being able to recognize the symptoms in themselves and in others is step one to preventing both suicide attempts and completed suicide.

What Sobkowski said she most often sees that leads her to reach out to any particular student is monitoring of grades. “When someone’s getting 90’s and then suddenly falls to all 60’s, that’s when it’s time to start asking them what’s going on.”

Sobkowski said the inability to focus that comes with a cycle of depression and anxiety is often revealed as she monitors grades at each 9-week period.

Another thing Sobkowski said is important for students to understand is that suicide is not a joke.

“If they bomb a test and say ‘oh I’m going to kill myself,’ they need to understand that’s not funny.”

Those “jokes” can result in referrals and a need for administration to contact parents, said Sobkowski, even when they know they’re not actual threats.

Empathy — the ability to put oneself in another’s place, to correctly interpret and imagine the feelings of others — is a learned skill. Understanding how to empathize with their peers is something that many students need to be taught, said Sobkowski. Sometimes, she said, students may not be aware just how their behavior and comments are affecting others.

Most importantly, Sobkowski said making students aware of resources and providing opportunities for students who are struggling to reach out for help are her main goals.

Sobkowski goes into the classroom with incoming freshmen and each year during scheduling to talk about suicide prevention and make sure everyone is handling the unique stressors of adolescence well. And students, said Sobkowski, have engaged with that instruction.

“They’re very interactive in the classroom,” said Sobkowski. “I have at least one kid in every class that is willing to talk about how suicide has affected them. Either a friend or a close family member, someone they know who’s tried or completed suicide. They ask questions. They are engaged with it.”

One of the resources Sobkowski said students have at their disposal — within the school — is the Student Referral System.

Students can let administration know when they or someone they know may be suffering from more than just a case of the blues. Since beginning to go into the classrooms and make a concerted effort to make students aware of the issues surrounding suicide, she said that referrals have gone up and many opportunities have been seized to work with a student in need.

The biggest challenge, said Sobkowski, is getting students in need of professional services in due to long wait times at local agencies.

The long wait times, Abby Wenzel of Beacon Light said at last month’s Department of Human Services Advisory Board meeting, is an issue that Beacon Light is aware of and is working on. It is an issue that affects all service providers, particularly in rural areas, but one that is constantly being worked on to improve.

But, said Sobkowski, often the biggest need students have is to be reached out to, and maybe to have parents made aware of the issue.