- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2000

Like many high school principals, Mike Warbel had a plan ready when the bad news came. It proved useful, yet of scant consolation after two student sweethearts committed suicide.
Grief counselors deployed at East Knox High School in Howard, Ohio; teachers read a message in their classrooms; students were encouraged to vent their emotions.
In the days following the suicides last month, Mr. Warbel faced some tough decisions. Should the prom be canceled? Should he speak at memorial services?
His choices the prom was held, he did give a memorial speech weren't based on any formal training. "You have a sense of how to react to your kids," Mr. Warbel said. "You can't be afraid of making a mistake."
A sadly high number of his peers confront similar dilemmas. About 2,000 American adolescents kill themselves each year.
After accidents and homicides, suicide is the third-leading cause of death for teen-agers. According to federal estimates, one out of every five high school students has thought seriously about attempting suicide, and one in 14 has made an actual attempt.
Faced with this toll, school personnel are struggling to find effective ways to prevent suicide and cope with its aftermath.
Many schools lack full-time staff trained to detect mental illness, and experts offer conflicting advice about suicide prevention strategies. Post-suicide procedures also are a challenge; administrators try to accommodate grief without glamorizing a death in a way that might encourage copycats.
"In our decision-making process, we were keeping two things in mind," Mr. Warbel said. "We wouldn't do anything to tarnish the images of these two kids, or intensify the grief of their families."
East Knox High, like many schools, doesn't have a distinct suicide-prevention course; it addresses suicide in the broader context of mental health. Many experts counsel against courses that are too specific, saying they could backfire among students already harboring suicidal thoughts.
"When you're talking to a big class and saying a lot of things about suicide, different people listen to different words," said Dr. David Shaffer, a Columbia University psychiatrist who heads the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
"In the disturbed kids, you probably reawaken bad thoughts and bad memories and set them off again," he said. "We recommend teaching teen-agers about depression, how to recognize the symptoms, and give that lesson without mentioning suicide."
Other experts, while agreeing that caution is warranted, say teachers shouldn't shy from explicit mention of suicide.
"Adolescents are smarter than we give them credit for. If you're dancing around something, they know it," said Lindy Garnette, director of child and family services for the National Mental Health Association.
"People don't commit suicide because somebody mentioned it. It can be a huge relief to hear the word, and be able to talk about it."
Screening for Mental Health, a Wellesley, Mass., organization, is recruiting 500 high schools nationwide for a program aimed at identifying students prone to depression.
At East Knox High, a 560-student school in central Ohio, Mr. Warbel regretted that suicide victims Joseph Hall and Rachel Hanna didn't seek help.
"They had more lifelines than 95 percent of the kids in this country, and didn't use them," he said. "The most important message to our kids is don't be afraid to express yourself. If you think things are so dire that you might consider harming yourself, get up on my desk or your teacher's desk and stomp your feet until someone hears you."
After learning that Joseph and Rachel popular honor roll students and varsity athletes killed themselves by setting their car ablaze, Mr. Warbel decided against holding a schoolwide assembly. He asked teachers to break the news in their classrooms.
"You have the kids in a familiar setting, and then if you drop a bomb in their laps, it's a little easier for them to respond," he said. "You go through your daily routine. The bells still ring. But the students are free to go any time to counselors, or just sit around in groups and talk."
To reduce the risk of copycat suicides, experts recommend emphasizing that most suicides result from mental illness and inflict deep pain on families.
"Someone may pick up on the notoriety, the attention resulting from a suicide, but they don't apprehend the downside. The headlines won't say how the family is devastated," said David Brent, professor of child psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

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