Growing Focus on Suicide Prevention, Especially Among Teens

Lilo H. Stainton | May 8, 2018 | Health Care
Lawmakers, parents, advocates, educators, and mental health professionals are working on numerous fronts across the state to save lives

Sen. Richard Codey, former governor of New Jersey
New Jersey has beefed up efforts to prevent suicide in schools and on college campuses in recent years, and the rate of these tragic deaths remains well below the national norm.

But several state lawmakers, including Sen. Richard Codey — the former governor and longtime mental health advocate — believe more must be done to reduce suicide in the Garden State, especially among teens, a group that is particularly at risk, experts agree. Data shows as many as one in 10 high school students here have tried to kill themselves.

Codey (D-Essex) and his wife and fellow advocate Mary Jo will join parents who have lost children to suicide, educators, and mental health experts on Wednesday to outline a three-point plan to reduce suicide, depression, and bullying, which are often underlying factors. His plan calls for boosting schools’ capacity to provide mental health services, including more training for support staff, and creating a statewide Teen Suicide and Depression Task Force.

“Too many young lives are being lost,” Codey said in a press release his nonprofit organization, The Codey Fund for Mental Health, shared with NJ Spotlight in advance. “New Jersey must act now to better equip all school employees to help identify at-risk students and prevent teen suicides and other mental-health-related incidents in their schools.”

On Thursday, members of the state Assembly will consider two measures with similar aims: a bipartisan proposal that would also create a statewide suicide advisory panel, focused on all ages — consolidating the work of two existing panels — and a bill to raise awareness and improve care for children with mental illness.

Garden State suicide rate climbs

New Jersey’s suicide rate was 8.3 deaths per 100,000 in 2015, up from 6.6 in 2000, according to the latest data available from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationwide, the rate has risen to 13.3 suicides per 100,000, versus 10.3 in 2000. White residents are far more likely to die this way than individuals of color.

While far below the national standard, nearly 800 New Jerseyans lost their lives this way in 2015, and suicide remains the third leading cause of death among teens. In addition, young people here are now more likely to attempt suicide than their peers nationwide. According to data from 2013, nearly 10 percent of Garden State high school students had tried to kill themselves, versus 8 percent nationwide.

Support services

To address this disturbing trend, state health officials have launched a range of support services. Through partnerships with Rutgers University and provider groups, New Jersey operates two free, confidential, 24/7 hotlines: The Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for individuals of any age who are in crisis, or family members seeking advice, and the New Jersey Suicide Prevention Hopeline, 1-855-654-6735, for people who want to talk to a trained peer counselor or mental health professional.

In addition, the state funds Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care to oversee a network of Traumatic Loss Coalitions, a network of county-based alliances developed in 2000 to help those working with school-age children to address suicide, violence, and other losses. The groups train school professionals and others and can coordinate counseling and support services at a school in the aftermath of a traumatic event.

Nonprofit entities have also played an important role, working with schools, children’s groups, and civic organizations to increase awareness and improve suicide prevention. The Madison Holleran Suicide Prevention Act, signed in 2016 to commemorate an Allendale native who took her life at Penn State University, requires higher education facilities to have trained experts on hand to assist suicidal students at all times of the day and night.

Additional investments

But Codey and others believe an additional investment could reduce these tragic deaths even more. He plans to introduce legislation that would set aside $1 million to fund a competitive grant process within the Department of Education that schools could use to expand mental health services. He will also call for specialized workshops for nonlicensed school workers, who may not have received the same training as teachers.

“School workers such as secretaries, security guards and teacher’s aides need the tools and training to recognize bullying, early warning signs and symptoms of mental health issues, and the proper steps to resolve conflict and prevent potential disasters,” he said.

Codey, a longtime Senate president who has gone undercover to expose problems within the state’s mental health system, will also outline plans for the statewide Teen Suicide and Depression Task Force, which would be charged with studying prevention methods and reporting to state legislators within a year.

The senator expects to be joined at Wednesday’s West Orange event by Dianne Grossman, a Rockaway mother who lost her daughter Mallory at age 12 and has since launched Mallory’s Army Foundation to fight bullying. Rachelle St. Phard, of East Windsor, will discuss the loss of her 18-year-old son Coby, and the Fly High Coby Fund the family started in his honor.

The following day, the Assembly Human Services committee is scheduled to hear testimony on a bipartisan plan to create a statewide Suicide Prevention Advisory Council, which would operate within the Department of Health. Sponsored by Assemblywomen Annette Quijano (D-Union), Joann Downy (D-Ocean), and BettyLou DeCroce (R-Morris), the bill (A-3645) would create a 19-member panel of experts to take over the work now being done by a youth-focused council operating under the Department of Children and Families and a separate group, dedicated to suicide among the elderly, which is part of the Department of Human Services.

In addition, the Assembly Women and Children committee will take up a resolution to consider May as Children’s Mental Health Awareness month. The proposal (AJR-33), led by Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-Hudson) and Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), among others, is designed to promote awareness about mental disorders in young people and improve access to treatment.