Families ask for suicide prevention training in N.H. schools

Since their son died, Martha and Paul Dickey have had little time to pause. The two have held fundraisers, launched community walks, made bracelets, and spoken to groups across the state about Jason’s life and the cause of his death: suicide.

“We asked ourselves: What did we miss? What we could we have done to save him? Where did we go wrong?” Dickey said. 

This year, Dickey is turning to the Legislature. On Wednesday, House lawmakers considered a bill to increase suicide awareness in New Hampshire schools and mandate training sessions for school faculty. Dickey was one of its strongest champions.

The legislation, House Bill 652, would require schools to carry out two hours a year of suicide prevention training for teachers, supervisors and administrators. The exact form of the trainings could be determined by individual schools.

Dickey and other family members affected by suicide say the training sessions could lead to progress on a growing crisis.

“We believe that community education is a positive step toward preparing our educators to know what the signs of suicide are,” Dickey said. “Families, educators and medical providers can work together, and together they can save lives.”

Informally titled the “Jason Flatt Act,” the bill would add New Hampshire to a national campaign that has so far seen 19 states mandate the training. Jason Flatt, the 16-year-old son of Clark Flatt, took his life in 1997, prompting his father to launch a foundation in his name and push for changes state by state.

That organization, the Jason Foundation, has offered training curricula for interested schools at no cost.

New Hampshire appears to have a void to fill. A 2014 survey of Granite State schools found that only seven percent of responding schools said they had annual suicide prevention training, according to Ken Norton, Executive Director of NAMI New Hampshire in Concord.

Over seventy-five percent said they wanted to provide the training, Norton said.

New Hampshire’s effort received a high-profile boost in Gov. Chris Sununu’s inaugural address earlier this month. And it spurred hope among some families that mental health awareness could finally take firm root across the state.

For Dellie Champagne, the community engagement coordinator of the New Hampshire Children’s Behavioral Health Collaborative in Concord, training could have made a world of difference for her son.

Now 25, her son attempted to take his life more than once, Champagne said. His lifelong condition, schizoaffective disorder, required painstaking attention from Champagne, a school teacher herself. But the Concord school system, she added, wasn’t equipped to deal with her son.

“It became apparent to me that most of the faculty were not trained to recognize signs and symptoms of mental illness,” Champagne said Wednesday. Faculty members did not recognize the mental condition, and Champagne’s son was more often disciplined than helped along, she said.

Other families painted portraits of inadequate school responses after the suicide of one of their students. In some cases, peers were not talked to; teachers seemed to avoid the subject.

Sununu, who met the Dickies at a robotics competition last year, praised the initiative as an effective start at combatting the Granite State’s high proportion of suicides.

“We must understand that suicide is preventable, and it starts with us,” Sununu said.

To Dickie, mandatory training is the least the state can do.

“We know that Jason would want us to do whatever we can to stop this from happening to others,” she said.

Click here to read the full article in the Concord Monitor.