By AMANDA JUNK
GREENCASTLE -- Between 2001 and 2005, suicide was the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-old Hoosiers, the Indiana State Department of Health reported in a 2007 study.
For counselors and administrators in Putnam County, these numbers are too high, and all have specific protocol for guiding students away from taking their own lives.
For North Putnam Community School Corporation principal Alan Zerkel and counselor Tyler Egli, when it comes to communication with students about any issue, the policy is open door, which is especially important to their school-wide suicide prevention plan.
"It's not abnormal to see 25 to 30 students a day about a variety of things. We try to connect and build that rapport with students so we can earn that trust and they can tell us those kinds of things," Egli said. "(Considering committing suicide) is not an easy thing for anyone to admit."
When describing the district's suicide prevention plan, Egli stressed the importance of a triangular relationship between youth, educators and parents in the community.
Students are required to take a mandatory health class as part of the district's curriculum, in which a week is dedicated to suicide prevention. The school also participates in TeenSpeak, a group counseling session that meets every two weeks to talk about issues relevant to teens.
Teachers, faculty and staff members review the signs and symptoms of suicide in the staff handbook so they know what to look for and what to do should the situation arise.
The district is also in the process of coordinating a community focus group comprised of area pastors, parents, teachers, Cummins Behavioral Health representatives and students, who meet to talk about how suicide should be addressed in the area.
Zerkel said including students in combating suicide as an issue in the area is important because teens feel more comfortable talking to peers they know and trust.
"So often it's a counselor or an administrator or a teacher standing up in front talking about this. We thought, 'Hey, we have very responsible students, very, very good students here, and let's include them,'" he said.
As part of reaching that goal, Egli said he is looking into implementing a suicide prevention program in the school and creating a team of students who know what to look out for and what to do.
One of these programs, The Jason Foundation, a national non-profit organization, stays closely in line with the school's "Triangle of Prevention" plan.
The free program is designed for students in grades seven through 12 and works in collaboration with the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA), State Attorneys General, and celebrity spokespersons to educate communities about youth suicide.
Mark Wildman, guidance counselor at South Putnam High School, also said his first concern is student safety and parental concern. If a student comes into his office expressing suicidal thoughts, Wildman will notify parents and give them options to come and pick up their student if the parent deems it OK to take them home.
"We want to make sure they don't have anything with them or waiting for them at home to carry it out," he said.
Suicide prevention is part of Greencastle High School's crisis plan, which also covers terrorist threats, guns and general school safety, guidance counselor Bill Smith said.
Part of that document addresses students' expression of suicide, and includes a questionnaire that helps determine what degree a student might be considering suicide.
"We do that anytime someone comes into the office and says they're going to kill themselves," he said. "We have to take that as absolute truth."
Smith said oftentimes his office will call parents to notify them of the situation. He also has a form he can ask parents to sign which states they have been notified of the severity of the situation and what the school recommends for further professional counseling.
Sometimes situations arise when Smith worries if a student will make it home once school gets out.
"They'll say things like, 'Oh, you'll find me in ditch by side of road.' There have been times we've taken them to the hospital for emergency evaluations," he said.
In his capacity as a practicing mental health counselor, Smith also has specific training in assessing the intent and severity of students' suicidal thoughts.
"It's a different environment in schools. Students say, 'I wish I were dead, I don't want to take chemistry test.' They refer to that frequently when mean they'd rather not do what they have to do," Smith said.
Smith said the people who persistently vocalize ideation can sometimes be the scariest cases because they do it as attention-getter to those around them who aren't taking what they're saying seriously. "They're the most likely to have to make gesture to get that attention back they used to get," he said. "That gesture could potentially go awry to the point of committing suicide."
Beth Sewell, guidance counselor at Cloverdale High School, said the district's procedure for dealing with reported suicide attempts is to follow state guidelines, and if parents express concern, she refers parents out to Cummins Behavioral Health Systems or Putnam County Behavioral Health Center, Sewell said.
She will also immediately call Child Protective Services and ask if the student feels protected, she said.
"If someone has talked about it or has a plan, we have to go by our procedure," she said.
Sewell also meets with students once a month as part of the school's Gold Star Guidance regional accreditation from the American School Counselor Association.
Each month's session focuses on different teen issues ranging from anger management, problem-solving skills, handling rumors and gossip, test anxiety and domestic violence and dating issues. Suicide prevention falls under the "social/personal" category, Sewell said.
As part of a school initiative, a group of two principals, nurse and counselor and three to four teachers meet once a month for Response to Instruction (RTI) meetings, the purpose of which is to help teachers identify students who are struggling either emotionally, grade- or attendance-wise and refer them to the Student Assistance Team.
"We come up with an action plan to come help those students and look out for warning signs," she said.
To further aids in fostering another positive, trusting student-teacher relationships in the building during the school day, teachers have the same homeroom class from students' freshman to senior year, Sewell said.
"The goal is to have another adult mentor in building they get to know during that time period once a week for 25 minutes," she said. "We tell them how to get help with a trusted adult, so they can talk to any adult in the building. We talk about bullying in the same vein."