It may just be a few digits printed on a student ID, but a new effort to highlight suicide prevention will shine more light on a difficult issue, backers hope.
St. John's High School this year has started to put the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline telephone number (1-800-273-8255) on students' identification cards. A bill that inspired that campaign, meanwhile, would require all public schools in the state to do the same.
"This is a resource that can help students when they need it the most," said St. John's sophomore Carson Domey, who pushed for the idea at his school. "They can literally just open up their wallet, get their student ID and then find someone to talk to right there."
Even if it's not something that's widely used, he added, "if anyone does need to use it, we're glad we're providing a preventative measure before anything has the chance to happen."
Carson, who is from Bellingham, knows from experience what can happen in that kind of desperate situation. One of his best friends died from suicide this past December, he said — a loss he never saw coming.
"I saw this kid every Sunday — we'd go on trips together, we always stayed in touch, always talked on the phone," he said. "If I ever had to guess someone to do it, he'd be on the bottom of the list — he was just the happiest kid."
But his friend's hidden struggles made Carson reflect afterward on all "the things that happen in people's lives, the stress ... you don't know what's happening those other six days." He did a lot of second-guessing afterward, he added, and took a week off of school to deal with his grief.
That experience was in the back of his mind while he was interning at the State House this past year when he came across a bill that proposed a new way to highlight the issue. S.250, sponsored by Sen. Joanne Comerford, would require all public schools, as well as both private and public colleges, to print the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the Crisis Text Line, the school's campus police or security telephone number, or some other local nonemergency number on their student IDs, if they provide them.
"It's a practical, pragmatic" approach to steering troubled kids toward help on one hand, said Ms. Comerford, a Democrat from Northampton who represents part of northern Worcester County. But it's also a symbolic statement from schools that suicide is not a taboo issue — "sometimes just breaking the silence is part of the solution," she said. "That's one piece of this."
Her bill, which is based on similar student ID laws in other states, awaits action in the Joint Committee on Education.
Carson, meanwhile, didn't want to wait, and petitioned his school to immediately begin providing the hotline on student cards. St. John's embraced the idea and also planned to educate the campus about the new initiative at the start of this school year.
"For any school administrator in 2019 (students' social and emotional wellness) needs to be a priority," said St. John's Headmaster Alex Zequeira, who noted the school has counselors, a psychologist and campus ministry to help students struggling with their mental health.
But eroding the stigma surrounding suicide specifically has not happened overnight, according to advocates on the issue. Jessika Zequeira, Mr. Zequeira's wife, has seen a gradual change in attitude as both a member of the SHINE Initiative, a local organization that helps schools equip to deal with student mental health issues, and an organizer of the region's annual Out of the Darkness suicide awareness and fundraiser walk, which takes place at 10 a.m. this upcoming Saturday at Institute Park in Worcester.
Particularly through her work for SHINE, which provides training to staff and students in Worcester and many other local school districts, she said she's seen students more comfortable talking about suicide as well as willing to organize at their schools to address the issue.
"I think that shows the culture is shifting," she said, "and that kids are feeling like they're being heard."
Schools, too, are becoming more cognizant of their role in their students' mental wellness, as evidenced by the increase in demand SHINE has seen in recent years for its services, Ms. Zequeira added. "I think they're starting to realize they need the support as well."
Worcester, for instance, has emphasized social and emotional wellness in its schools in recent years, and invested in four new adjustment counselors and two new school psychologists in its latest budget. The district has also long offered a class for seventh- and ninth-graders called "Signs of Suicide" that teaches students how to support their own and their classmates' mental wellness.
Maura Mahoney, Worcester's manager of social emotional learning, said students often just need an outlet when it comes to helping each other navigate those kinds of issues.
"Every year, I always get a cohort (of students) that is worried about the same kid," she said, "and that kid sometimes isn't on our radar."
But studies have shown the key to youth suicide prevention "is the connection between adults and kids," she added. One of the district's efforts in that area is a youth "mental health first aid" program that shows teachers how to approach kids with mental health issues.
Funding, however, remains an obstacle to further investment in mental wellness staff and initiatives in local schools.
?(The student ID bill) is just one piece of a much larger and complex puzzle," Ms. Comerford said. "This issue really needs a full-court press. We need to fully fund our schools — many school-based services have had to be cut back."
She also said she's been pushing in the Legislature for additional aid and other avenues to support more youth-based health initiatives in general intended to fill a service gap in the region, particularly for mental health.
In the meantime, having a suicide prevention hotline number in every student's pocket would at least provide a backup option in districts that don't have enough wellness staff, she said, if a struggling teenager needs someone to talk to.
Ms. Mahoney said that idea is new to her — Worcester currently doesn't do it — but she said she supports "anything that puts a positive spin on reaching out for help."
Even with recent efforts to destigmatize suicide, she added, "people can be very uncomfortable with the word — it's a very difficult topic." But not too long ago, cancer used to be a disease that was whispered about too, she said — now it's out in the open.
"I'd like to see the same thing happen with mental health," she said. "We've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go."