As reported by the Courier Express, August 20, 2007.

Protecting Students from Themselves in SOS Program's Goal

ST. MARYS - Protecting students from themselves is the goal of a new program that will be provided to students in Elk and Cameron county schools this year.

The Signs of Suicide program also know as the SOS program has been shown to reduce suicide attempts by 40 percent in a randomized controlled study, according to the March 2004 American Journal of Public Health.

Each school in Elk and Cameron counties will pick a grade level, sixth through 12th, to screen. Most of the schools have picked eighth or ninth grade because that is when students are most likely to engage in risky behaviors, according to Jen Dippold, director of Community-based Children's Services for Dickinson Mental Health Services.

According to the Northwest Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency 2005 (most recent available) statistics, 30 percent of 10th graders thought life was just not worth living. Almost 40 percent of high school sophomores and seniors reported feeling sad or depressed most days according to the statistics, Dippold said.

"This program is in response to what we believe is a need for children and adolescents," she said.

The SOS program, funded with grant money, is not a treatment program, but a screening program to find students at risk so they can receive the help they need through a counselor or doctor. Schools that have used the program report a 70 percent average increase in students seeking counseling for depression/suicidal behavior on behalf of a friend in the 30 days following the program, according to an SOS evaluation of 376 schools.

There was a 150 percent increase in the number of students seeking counseling for depression and suicidal behavior in the 30 days following the program compared to the number seeking help each month in the prior year, the SOS evaluation said.

The students will be surveyed in the grade selected by the school and asked questions such as, "In the last four weeks, has there been a time when nothing was fun for you and you just weren't interested in doing anything?" The survey helps students to recognized depression and suicidal thoughts and behaviors in themselves so they can get help.

Some signs of depression include being sad, grouchy or irritable, a change in weight or appetite, loss of interest in usual activities and withdrawing from friends and family.

Self-awareness is just one part of the program, it will also focus on educating students in middle and high schools so they can respond quickly if someone shows signs of suicide, so the person can get the help needed.

The students will see a video that will teach them the link between depression and suicide and show them how to talk to a friend with empathy and get them the help they need.

SOS aims to make the acronym ACT as familiar as CPR. ACT stands for acknowledge, respond with care and tell a trusted adult.

"If a friend says he's depressed or wants to kill himself, this program helps kids to find out who to tell and trust," Shelly Meier, SOS program supervisor, said. It also encourages children not to tell their friend they will keep it a secret, but that they will get them help, she said.

This is the first time in 20 years of research that a school-based suicide prevention program has shown this type of affect on suicidal behavior, according to Dr. Robert Aseltine of the University of Connecticut Health Center.

If a parent, student or teacher is concerned then they can refer the student to the student assistance program at their school and that team can determine if a student needs to be screened.

Parents must give permission for the student to be treated for depression (by a doctor, therapist or hospital) unless there is an emergency situation, Dippold said. Once in treatment the student would learn coping skills or be prescribed medication if needed.

The goal is to continue the program so that all students are screened by the time they graduate, Dippold said.

"Suicide is permanent response to a short-term problem," Dippold said. "If a student says he wants to kill himself for whatever reason we take it seriously."

For more information on the program contact your school or Dickinson Mental Health Services Community-based Children's Services at (814) 834-2602.