Out of the belief that this community can and must do better by young people who are struggling and at risk of taking their own lives, Nationwide Children’s Hospital has created a center to better understand and stop suicide.
There are two main goals, said director Jeff Bridge, a suicide researcher.
The team at Children’s wants to better apply discoveries made in suicide studies so children and teens benefit quickly from lessons scientists learn about minds hopeless enough to see suicide as an answer and interventions that might turn that around.
They also want to bolster the hospital’s relationship with school districts and collaborate with them to bring a prevention program called Signs of Suicide to more teens.
The idea for the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research came about a year and a half ago.
Last year in Franklin County, 13 students died by suicide. Seven more died in the first six months of this year.
Teen friends can sometimes feel pressured to keep secret their friends’ confidences, and they may feel helpless and ill-equipped to act in a way that might do some good.
The program in the schools aims to dispel misunderstandings about suicide and to emphasize the power of speaking up when you know someone is hurting and at risk.
“We normalize it. We make it no different than asthma or heart disease. It’s important that we do that,” said Jill Cuthbert, a counselor at New Albany High School, which has worked with Children’s for several years.
Conversations about who might need some help have become commonplace, Cuthbert said.
“When they see something, they say something. Telling someone is not a bad thing. It’s not good to keep secrets. You’re not being a friend by doing that.”
The program’s screening component consistently identifies students — as many as 15 percent of those who participate each time — who can benefit from counseling, including some at high risk of suicide, Cuthbert said.
John Ackerman, who leads Children’s school-outreach efforts and is suicide-prevention coordinator, said the free program is available to all middle and high schools in the area, and he’s hopeful that more will take advantage of the research-based approach to preventing deaths. The program has been shown to reduce by about 40 percent suicide attempts by people who are exposed to it, he said.
It includes education on symptoms of depression and warning signs of suicide.
“The most important component is that we also provide tools for how to respond,” Ackerman said.
His team teaches students about acknowledging the problem, showing kindness and care to the person at risk, and telling a trusted adult, whether that’s a parent, a counselor, the science teacher or a bus driver.
Videos presented to students and staff members include vignettes that give examples of interactions between young people contemplating suicide and their friends.
“In one, the person says, ‘I need you to promise not to tell anyone about it,’ ” Ackerman said.
“I spend time acknowledging that it can be a very difficult situation to go against that, but a frustrated or angry friend who is alive is far better than one who has made a suicide attempt.”
The addition of the center at Children’s will help ensure that those who are in the field trying to stop suicide and caring for young people who have survived attempts are collaborating with researchers to tailor their interventions based on science, Ackerman said.
Bridge, for example, is performing a long-term study that is following young people who are depressed and at high risk of attempting suicide. He and his colleagues are working to find out if there are ways to predict through cognitive testing which of the 12- to 15-year-olds are at highest risk.
That kind of information empowers caregivers, he said, and can lead to better approaches to helping those adolescents’ brains.
“If we identify particular patterns of risk, we may be able to develop new interventions.”
The creation of the center will ideally help scientists there secure more research dollars, Bridge said.
“It really pulls together all the resources we have for caring for the youth in Columbus, Ohio,” he said, adding that discoveries made here can help children and teens everywhere.