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New law looks to curb youth suicides

As classes begin this week, advocates said a new state effort will help school employees spot early warning signs among students considering suicide — one of the leading causes of death among youth.

A law that took effect earlier this year requires certain school employees — teachers, administrators, counselors and psychologists — to complete youth suicide awareness training, which would be incorporated into existing continuing education requirements.

The training also includes topics like child abuse prevention, violence and substance abuse, school safety and bullying. Employees must complete four hours of this training within two years after being hired, and then every five years after that, according to the Legislative Service Commission.

Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among people ages 15-24, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control. Advocates for the new law say four out of five young people who commit suicide show warning signs first, and that early intervention can help reduce the risk.

“What this bill is going to do is spare other families — and we’ll never know who they are — but we’ll spare other families this great tragedy,” said Republican Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.

The law is named the “Jason Flatt Act, in honor of Joseph Anielski” after two teenage boys who took their own lives.

Clark Flatt, of Tennessee, started a charity in 1996 after his 16-year old son committed suicide. The Jason Foundation provides free education that is on an approved curriculum list under the new law and has pushed for similar laws in other states.

And bill sponsor State Rep. Marlene Anielski, R-Independence, was inspired to pursue the law after the death of her son, a high school senior who killed himself in 2010.

“Providing our educators with the tools, information and resources not to be counselors, but to be able to have early identification of young people who are struggling with issues that become suicidal ideation. Getting those young people help early on will save lives,” Flatt said at a Tuesday press conference at the Statehouse.

“I don’t know why it took this long to get something in place. Teen suicide is an epidemic,” said Dr. Connie Ball when asked about the new law. Her son’s 2010 death was ruled a suicide.

Jordan Ball, 16, of Springboro, was one of three teen suicides in Warren County in 2011, compared to none in 2012 and one so far this year, according to the Warren County Coroner’s Office.

In Montgomery County, two teen suicides have been reported in 2013 and were reported for all of 2011, compared with six teen suicides in 2012, according to the county coroner’s office.

No teen suicides had been reported this year in Clark or Greene counties, according to the county coroner’s offices. Last year, one teen died from suicide in both Champaign and Greene counties.

While describing the new law as “a great step,” Patti Ahting of the Mental Health Recovery Services of Warren and Clinton Counties said school staff would benefit from annual training — not upon hire and then every five years after that like in the new law — reinforcing their skills in recognizing and referring troubled youths for help.

“Not everybody’s a trained counselor,” said Ahting, chair of the area’s suicide prevention coalition.

“It just takes a caring, listening person to help connect them to a resource that can make a difference,” she said.

For the past year, Ahting’s agency has been urging teachers and other staff in public and private schools to complete a session on Kognito, a free, on-line training course in suicide recognition and prevention.

“It’s like a video game almost.” Ahting said, adding the training will be free through next summer. “A lot of different states are using it.”

Rep. Anielski said work needs to be done to reduce the stigma of people struggling with suicidal thoughts. She said people who ask about how her son died suddenly become short on words after she tells them.

“It’s OK to talk about it. Just because you talk about it doesn’t mean you’re increasing someone’s thought of doing and acting on it,” she said. “And I think the more we talk about it, the more education that is out there for the students themselves and also the teachers and personnel, we’re going to reduce the number.”

Former Ohio State University President E. Gordon Gee, a Jason Foundation board member, also spoke Tuesday in support of the new youth suicide prevention law.

“We have so many people who for unknown reasons become afflicted by darker angels,” Gee said. “So the opportunity through this act is a generous gift that has been given to Ohio to be able to make an impact.”

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