In order to remain compliant with Missouri laws, Boonville schools have until July 1 to finalize and implement a district-wide suicide prevention program.
This policy is required to address strategies to identify students at possible risk of suicide, strategies and protocols for helping these students and protocols for responding to a suicide death within the school.
“It’s a real problem, and statistics are not moving in the right direction,” said Dr. Sarah Marriott, incoming superintendent for Boonville schools.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people aged 10 to 24, and Missouri’s youth suicide rate is slightly above average. Nationally, 8.6 percent of high schoolers report attempting suicide at least once in the past twelve months, according to CDC data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. In Missouri, this number is closer to 9.8 percent. In 2017, Missouri’s Behavior Health Crisis Hotline answered 3,839 calls from youth up to the age of 17.
Those living in rural communities are also at a greater risk of suicide. On average, rural communities have a suicide rate of 17.32 per 100,000 people, while small to medium counties have a rate closer to 14.86 suicide deaths per 100,000 people.
Several factors help to explain these statistics. Lack of access to mental health care and an increased sense of isolation can both contribute to higher rates of suicide in rural areas, said Dr. Elizabeth Sale, evaluation director for the Missouri Institute of Mental Health. There are currently no psychiatric beds available in Cooper County for youth in need of intensive inpatient care, and bed availability across the state varies greatly day to day. When individuals go to the Cooper County Memorial Hospital Emergency Room with psychiatric emergencies, they are typically referred to Columbia.
Negative attitudes toward mental health care also act as a barrier to receiving treatment for teens.
“Stigma and inaccurate perceptions about mental healthcare are very real deterrents to individuals seeking help, in both rural or urban communities,” said Debra Walker, public affairs director for the Missouri Department of Mental Health.
Teachers play a crucial role in identifying students who may be at risk, but often fear doing the wrong thing.
“Teachers want to help, but they’re not sure what to do because they don’t have that mental health training,” Superintendent Marriott said.
This legislation requires that teachers undergo at least two hours of suicide training prevention each year. Marriott said that the district has not yet finalized the details of this arrangement, but plans on utilizing a combination of videos and lectures. The district is working with the Jason Foundation, an Arkansas-based youth suicide prevention program, as they finalize these policies.
“The state guidelines are great, but we want to do more than the minimum,” Marriott said.
Part of this effort includes an anti-bullying committee formed about 18 months ago.
“Stress resulting from prejudice and discrimination is a known risk factor for suicide attempts,” Walker said.
This anti-bullying committee comprises community members, city representatives, faith leaders, county officers and physicians.
“We know that this is an issue not isolated to schools alone and we have to make it a community effort in order to have a stronger impact,” Marriott said.