Jason Dickey’s mother, Martha, remembers him as a fun and outgoing young man with a larger than life personality.
Yet he was consumed by despair so deep he took his own life on Sept. 14, 2017, at age 19.
The Boscawen teen was among 38 young people in New Hampshire who died by suicide that year in a state where the rate of youth suicide (under age 24) is nearly 50 percent higher than the national average and climbing.
Jason’s family joined others who’d experienced a similar tragedy in an appeal to lawmakers at the State House, urging them to support enhanced suicide awareness and prevention training for New Hampshire teachers.
Gov. Chris Sununu cited youth suicide prevention as a major policy initiative in his inaugural address earlier this month, and on Wednesday a long line of anguished parents and siblings told members of the House Committee on Education why they think the initiative is necessary.
They came in support of House Bill 652, “the Jason Flatt Act of 2019,” which would require every teacher, supervisor and administrator in the public schools to receive at least two hours of training in suicide awareness and prevention annually. Sununu alluded to the Dickey family in his inaugural address, and how they are “channeling their pain into hope, for all of us … Today, 20 states have passed this law, and it is time New Hampshire joins that list,” he said.
The law was first passed by Tennessee in 2007, and is named in memory of a Tennessee high school student who died by suicide in 1997. It’s promoted and funded by the Jason Foundation.
“With just two hours of in-service training annually, teachers will learn to recognize the warning signs and risk factors students may exhibit,” said Martha Dickey. “They learn how to respond and more importantly how to make referrals that significantly reduce the rate of suicide death. Schools can play a vital role, and should train educators in suicide prevention.”
Another young man who died of suicide within weeks of Jason Dickey, and only a few miles away, was also represented at Wednesday’s hearing.
Alec Joseph White was 16 when he died on Nov. 3, 2017 in Loudon. His sister, Joli, said her own experiences in high school afterward demonstrated the need for initiatives like the Jason Flatt Act.
When she tried to organize structured conversations with other students about her brother, she says she could not get the support she needed at Merrimack Valley High School in Penacook.
“If these teachers had more knowledge about suicide, they may have been able to assist prior to any of the five suicides in the last few years and the countless attempts that students have made recently,” she said.
Dellie Champagne is the community engagement coordinator in the Children’s Behavioral Health Collaborative at New Futures, a public health advocacy non-profit in Concord. She told lawmakers how her son tried to hang himself in the boys’ bathroom at his middle school, and how the reaction convinced her of the great need for training.
“He was escorted out of the school in handcuffs in front of a student body of 1,100,” she said, struggling to maintain her composure. “He was placed in a police cruiser and spent 10 days in a psychiatric hospital.”
She encouraged lawmakers to expand upon HB 652 and pass legislation requiring an eight-hour training called Youth Mental Health First Aid, with a broader focus for a larger group of school employees.
“I believe all students and faculty, including bus drivers and custodians should be required to attend this (or something similar) so as to better understand the struggles and challenges of 20 percent of the student population who are impacted by various mental illness,” she said.
Another bill with broad bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, SB 282, takes that wider approach. It would require school districts and chartered public schools to develop a policy for preventing, assessing the risk of, and responding to student suicide, while providing training for faculty, staff and school volunteers on suicide prevention.
Carl Ladd, executive director of the N.H. School Administrators’ Association, said he understands and agrees with the underlying premise of these bills, but warned there is only so much the schools can do.
He alluded to the many requirements that already exist for annual training in federal law on educational privacy (FERPA); health history privacy (HIPPA); equal access for children with disabilities; bullying; sexual harassment; asbestos; emergency planning for fires, active shooters and workplace violence; and drug and alcohol prevention.
“The list goes on and on of the issues schools are now being asked to solve and intervene in,” he said. “I worry about the ability of our system as a whole to continue to address all the social issues of our communities and our state. We continue to ask more and more of our schools, with fewer and fewer resources.”
The Jason Flatt Act does not include any appropriation for suicide awareness training.
“Without those resources this is an opportunity for someone to say, ‘Well, I’ve addressed this by passing this piece of legislation and therefore suicide prevention is taken care of,’ and that is not true.”