AFSP Advocacy Day in Little Rock

Kathryn Bland, Editor

The Cabot High School Lifesavers Club and Hope Squad visited the Arkansas State Capitol on March 2 to speak to representatives about suicide prevention in Arkansas.
I had the honor of speaking in front of American for Suicide Prevention Advocates and some Arkansas House Representatives. Being both President of Lifesavers and a member of Hope Squad, suicide prevention, and mental health awareness is near and dear to my heart. Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in ages 10-24 here in Arkansas. Not only that, but Arkansas is ranked number 11th nationally in terms of deaths by suicide per year, which is absolutely devastating as suicide can be prevented. It is important to bring light to areas that could be improved in an effort to reduce suicide rates statewide.
Sadly, many individuals find that crisis lines, such as AFSP’s 988 number which went live this past July, are often underfunded and understaffed. Local crisis centers often rely on state and local contributors to continue operations, as federal funding is put into call routing best
practice standards, public messaging, capacity-building opportunities, and technical assistance
for its nationwide network. This hinders the growth of local centers and their ability to keep up with the increasing call volume, which leads to callers being rerouted to other centers in their state or out-of-state into Lifeline’s national backup network. This loss of time between when an individual in crisis calls and when they are able to receive help can be detrimental to the outcome of their crisis.
A 2018 survey of Lifeline centers found that almost 98% of crisis calls are de-escalated, meaning that further costly, highly restrictive responses from law enforcement and emergency medical services are unnecessary. Passing legislation concerning the allocation of state funds to in-state crisis centers can dramatically decrease the amount of time between when an individual calls and is able to receive help, while also helping to decrease revenue spent on less-effective means of prevention such as law-enforcement and paramedic responses.
Not only does it reduce costs in emergency services, but it is also available 24/7, unlike counselors at schools which are only available during school hours. And while I am so incredibly lucky to be in a school district that promotes mental health awareness and suicide prevention with additional staff training and not only one, but two amazing, peer-led suicide prevention groups, so many kids in k-12 are not that lucky.
In the state of Arkansas, the only school staff required to go through suicide prevention training are licensed teachers. To get and renew a teaching license in Arkansas you must go through a short, non-interactive training video. Meaning, a teacher who has been licensed for 25 years has only gone through 6 suicide prevention courses. Not only does this not keep up with the changing times and ups and downs of social media and “slang”, but it also doesn’t adequately prepare teachers for intervening in a potentially life-threatening situation, and it doesn’t apply to the entire staff of a school district. Paraprofessionals, bus drivers, office workers, custodians, food services, and others are not mandated to go through any type of suicide awareness or prevention course. This poses risks to at-risk students as many of their adult counterparts are not trained to look for or recognize the signs of suicidal thoughts or actions.
A child may be suffering from depression, but hiding it during class, but there are still staff members who interact with them outside of that when they don’t think to mask those symptoms. Their bus driver may notice that they sleep every day before and after school, a custodian might see them sitting alone in a hall at lunch or crying in a bathroom, and a learning interventionist may see them losing motivation in their private sessions, but as long as the child masks those symptoms in front of their teachers it is highly unlikely that they will be referred to the counselors. But, if all staff had interactive training, even if it was every other school year, they would be able to recognize those signs and feel confident enough to intervene in situations where they believe a child to be at risk.
Additionally, providing students with the LifeLine number in highly visible areas of the school can help to de-stigmatize it and encourage students to reach out, and it can promote conversations regarding mental health between students and their schools. Open communication, increased training for school staff, and inclusion of crisis line numbers can all reduce the stigmatization of students reaching out for help during a mental health crisis.