It may still be a taboo subject in society, but for freshmen at
Medway High school, there's no avoiding frank talk about suicide.
In early December, each of the roughly 240 students spent one of
their double-period classes watching a video about depression and
suicide presented by a counselor. After completing a self-screening
survey, they could check off a box if they wanted to talk with
someone about themselves or a friend. They left class with handouts
reminding them to "ACT": "Acknowledge" if a friend has a problem;
"Care" by letting him or her know you want to help; and "Tell" a
That's the key message of the Signs of Suicide (SOS) prevention
program. Since 2000-01, more than 3,500 schools throughout the
United States have used its materials and training kits to teach
students how to recognize and respond to depression and suicidal
"People are always telling me that the program has saved lives in
their schools," says Sharon Pigeon, manager of SOS at Screening for
Mental Health Inc., a nonprofit in Wellesley, Mass.
Ms. Pigeon's own niece, 14 years old at the time, confided in her
that a friend had attempted suicide and planned to "do it right" the
next weekend. Using materials from SOS, Pigeon persuaded her niece
that they should call the school counselor. "Later, the girl said to
[my niece and other friends], 'I don't know which one of you told on
me, but I'm glad you did because you saved my life,' " Pigeon says.
Her anecdotes are backed up by independent research. SOS is the
only school-based curriculum shown to reduce self-reported suicide
attempts in randomized controlled studies.
While suicide by young people is rare, it's the third leading
cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds, according to the National
Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Knowing the ripple effects
that even one teen suicide can have in a community, educators are
eager to equip students with tools like SOS.
Research reports in 2004 and 2007 found that suicide attempts
were 40 percent less for students in the SOS high school program
than for the control group. The results were similar across racial
and socioeconomic groups. Because of such studies, SOS is listed on
the National Registry of Effective Programs maintained by the US
government's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
Administration. Middle schools have started using an age-
appropriate version of SOS recently as well.
The Massachusetts Department of Mental Health increased its
funding for youth suicide prevention to $75,000 in 2007, up from
$20,000 the year before. Most of the money is used to purchase SOS
kits for hundreds of schools, and to train school staff. Educators
are urged to build ties with community mental health providers to
make sure help is at hand once students start identifying peers as
depressed or potentially suicidal.
Teachers frequently use the ACT acronym (Acknowledge, Care, Tell)
to encourage students "not only to identify young people who may be
suicidal, but also for such things as bullying and dating violence,"
says Alan Holmlund, director of the state's suicide prevention
Sadie, a Medway senior who heard the SOS presentation as a
sophomore, says that "in high school, especially in a small town
like this,... once you break someone's trust you don't know where
you're going to end up yourself." But SOS gives students a different
perspective, she says. "You really see how dangerous it is not to
speak out.... When it comes down to either losing a friend because
they're not talking to you anymore or losing a friend because they
lost their life, you know, I think this makes people come out and
say, 'This person needs help.' "
Medway counselor Meredith Poulten sends a letter to parents each
year explaining the SOS program and the basic self-screening survey
that students are asked to take. …