Missouri lawmaker seeks suicide prevention programs

Columbia Public Schools have similar programs already in place.

A bill aimed at increasing suicide prevention programs in Missouri schools passed out of the Missouri State Senate Education Committee on March 4.

The bill would require schools to implement resources and programs to raise suicide awareness and prevention.

Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, introduced Senate Bill 328 with the goal of lowering youth suicides in Missouri.

“Missouri has a higher youth suicide rate than the nation as a whole, and this legislation is being broadly supported because people are recognizing a problem that needs to be addressed,” Schupp said in an email.

A study conducted by the Missouri Institute of Mental Health found that suicide was the third leading cause of death for Missouri young adults ages 15 to 24. Overall, the suicide rate in Missouri is higher than the rate nationally.

Schupp said she hopes to see increased levels of education around mental health, particularly when it comes to educators by providing schools with the impetus to create these programs.

“This bill provides opportunities for educators and school personnel to receive professional development training in suicide awareness and prevention,” Schupp said.

The bill would create voluntary training programs to teach educators how to address mental health as a part of their professional development requirements.

“Educators will learn to recognize signs of a child or young person who might be in distress and to intervene on that student’s behalf,” Schupp said.

The bill grew out of a tragedy that Schupp said she hopes to avenge.

“(The bill) was inspired by the father of a 17-year-old young woman who committed suicide last May,” she said.

Rick Cantor had lost his daughter, Avery, to suicide and approached Schupp to prevent others from going through the same type of loss. Cantor is the president of Avery’s Angels Foundation, an organization founded to help prevent teenage suicide by providing educational programs to St. Louis area schools.

“He knows he will be dealing with this unspeakable loss forever, yet he is determined to make sure he helps prevent other parents and loved ones from experiencing this same pain,” Schupp said. “He wants to help stop death by suicide, with a particular focus on our youth.”

To do this, Schupp decided to focus on the education system in Missouri. The bill sets up a framework for schools to use to create better mental health programs.

“By using a model policy, or creating its own policy, a school district will begin to engage in the process of discussing and providing learning opportunities around the issue of suicide awareness and prevention,” Schupp said. “As we know, education can be the tool to provide change."

Schupp has seen most school districts only address the issue retroactively, once they have experienced a suicide. With this bill, she hopes that will no longer be the case.

“School districts will become better equipped to deal proactively with students who might need support with mental health and other issues,” she said.

Michelle Baumstark, director of community relations for Columbia Public Schools, said she understands the need for these programs and that Columbia already has similar ones in place.

“In Columbia, we have a very comprehensive guidance and counseling program, increasing mental health support for students and many resources in the community that we can access to help students in need,” Baumstark said.

Columbia Public Schools also currently provides education opportunities on mental health for educators.

“We have regular professional development for our employees on a variety of issues, including suicide prevention," Baumstark said. “We have psychologists as well as licensed counselors.”

Columbia Public Schools will also soon be receiving more funds to develop these programs further as a part of a tax in Boone County that voters approved in November 2012.

“Boone County recently passed a children’s mental health tax that will also help provide additional support systems for students,” Baumstark said. “There is a board that has been established to help allocate funds and develop support systems for the community that schools and agencies can access.”

Schupp said some Missouri school districts are implementing programs to address mental health, but she wants to expand these programs to cover the entire state.

“While some districts have policies in place already, this bill ensures that the issue is addressed statewide, making sure resources to deal with suicide awareness and prevention are readily available to every school district,” Schupp said.

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