Guest Opinions

Awareness and training: Bill will help Idaho school staff prevent youth suicide

The office of the governor at the Idaho Capitol.
The office of the governor at the Idaho Capitol.

In a world filled with uncertainty for the future of our youth, Idahoans have a timely opportunity to protect the health and safety of our children. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Idahoans age 15-34. The recent school shooting in Florida has sparked intense discussion regarding mental health and access to weapons. As tragic as that event was, more young people were lost to suicide in Idaho in 2017 than were killed in Florida’s mass shooting. Last year, Idaho lost 20 youth ages 8 to 17 and 46 young adults ages 18 to 25 to suicide. Yet, because of stigma, we do not acknowledge these preventable deaths. Suicide deaths go under-reported.

Rep. Caroline Troy and the Idaho Suicide Prevention Coalition drafted House Bill 634, an adaptation of the Jason Flatt Act. This bill would provide suicide awareness and prevention training to all Idaho public school staff; including teachers, coaches, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and janitors. Such gatekeeper training would give school staff tools and resources for the early recognition and referral of students who exhibit signs of depression, bullying, anxiety and suicidality. If the bill is signed by the governor, Idaho will be the 20th state to adopt such legislation. Historically, students with mental health disorders have passed under the radar. Many have died before having the opportunity for medical treatment due to failure to detect and diagnose.

The brain and the body are connected and must be treated together for optimal health. We do well in health care for the body, but we fall short in health care for the mind. Medications are thrust on our youth in attempts to treat mental health conditions that are often misdiagnosed. Our health care force is poorly educated in mental health disease, suicidality and its treatment. The number of pediatric psychiatrists is insufficient and multi-disciplinary treatment teams are few and far between. More research is needed on the effects of psychotropic medication on the adolescent brain — especially when combined with hormonal changes, substance use, neglect, abuse, and other environmental factors.

At any given time, our emergency rooms are filled with suicidal youth. If a young person is admitted to the hospital, there is pressure for physicians to discharge these patients quickly once medically stable, usually the next day. Only a fraction of these acutely ill youth are accepted for in-patient treatment at behavioral health hospitals, where they are likely to be heavily dosed with medications, treated like inmates, and receive little coordinated follow up treatment.

Suicide is a preventable disease. If recognized, diagnosed, and treated appropriately, lives can be saved. We must look at our entire system of prevention, intervention, treatment and postvention to be successful in reducing suicide rates in Idaho. I applaud our stakeholders, parents, youth leaders and legislators for their courage to address this issue. Together, we must meet this epidemic head on. We have a very long way to go.

The future health of our youth is in our hands.

Ann Cordum is an independent Boise physician and past president of the board of directors for the Children’s Home Society of Idaho.