Here's the testimony I presented this morning to the Ohio Senate Education Committee in support of legislation that would mandate suicide prevention education for Ohio school teachers, counselors, and administrators. (I have some more pictures but they are on the phone of my brother, who came up to Columbus to surprise and support me, and I'm waiting . . . ). My small contribution to a large group effort:
Madam Chairwoman and Committee Members:
I want to thank you for this opportunity to speak in support of House Bill 543, the Jason Flatt Act. I am a Volunteer Field Advocate for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which is working with the Jason Foundation to support this legislation in Ohio. My husband, son Matt, and I are residents of Cleveland Heights in Cuyahoga County; I serve as the pastor of Nankin Federated Church in Ashland County; and my daughter lives and works in Warren, in Mahoning County. My father and my brother and his family are residents of Warren County; my niece is a teacher in the Little Miami School District in Warren County. I share those “family facts” with you as an indication of how the consequences of one suicide, that of my son Josh, reverberate across our state.
I hope that the statistics presented to you in connection with this proposed legislation are shocking to you. They are shocking to me, and I have now lived with the reality of suicide as a devastating and life-altering experience for over four years.
Why am I here today? I am here for both professional and personal reasons.
· From a professional standpoint, in the years before I was ordained to ministry, I was an attorney, practicing family law, and an educator, in a Jewish day school for six years, and on and off as an adjunct instructor at the college level. Never in all of those years, years in which I met all of my continuing education requirements in my fields, some of it in child and adolescent development and psychology, did I receive or know to seek training in suicide prevention. As a family lawyer, I often served as a guardian ad litem, charged with representing the best interests of children in juvenile and family court. As you can imagine, many of the children and adolescents whom I served lived difficult and troubled lives. But had one of them attempted or died of suicide, I would have been dumbfounded, as I surely would have recognized no advance warning signs.
· As an educator, I have worked primarily with middle and high school students and young adults. Again: no training, no knowledge regarding the signs of suicidal thoughts or plans. Today I know that treatable mental illness, the leading cause of suicide, knows no boundaries: students across the spectrum in terms of gifts, achievement, income brackets, and family background are victims of what has become a mental health catastrophe.
· My friend Jean Reinhold, a gifted enrichment educator with twenty-five years of experience in the Shaker Heights school system in Cuyahoga County, tells me that she has “seen/heard/known of increasing numbers of students facing insurmountable stresses without coping mechanisms [and that that situation], tied with any propensity toward mental illness, is scary.” Indeed it is.
My niece, Bethany Beebe, teaches language arts to eighth-graders. She wrote the following to me last week: “I can't say that any other teacher I with whom have spoken about the issue of suicide and prevention of such has any real idea of how to 'deal' with it. It is something that is always on my mind when I see a student who is going through a hard time. I know I may be more sensitive to it because of Josh, but I could not imagine how I would feel if it were to happen to one of our students. Having the tools to know how to identify the symptoms (for lack of a better word) is crucial.”
We have tremendous expectations of our teachers. We expect them to teach our children how to write and how to understand algebra. We expect them to prepare our young people for a fast-paced, multi-cultural, globalized society. We expect them to grade papers and manage lunchrooms and recess. Can we also expect them to be mental health gatekeepers?
We already do. Many of our young people see more of their teachers and school coaches and advisors than they do of other adults in their lives, including their parents. Young people write papers and create art that reflect their deepest feelings. Young people often behave in ways that offer clues to what they may be experiencing in the form of sadness, of frustration, of drug and alcohol use, of relationship challenges, of family situations, and of depression and other disorders and illnesses.
How critical it is that we offer their educators and administrators and counselors the tools they need to respond appropriately and effectively to what they, and often they alone, observe!
Now, a personal note: Our son, Josh Williams, died in 2008, the day after his 24th birthday. At the time, we, his family and friends, believed that there had been no warning signs. We were in a state of complete shock for months, and often likened his death to his having been run down by a train.
· As the years have passed, however, and we have learned more about Josh and more about mental illness, it has become apparent that the signs were there. Many of them were extremely subtle, and many would have remained unknown to us had we not found writings and journals of his that indicate that he had suffered from depression for at least two years before his death, and perhaps much longer.
· You may ask, “How could you not have known?” You may want to believe that anyone who takes such a drastic measure to relieve his suffering would surely have been broadcasting his feelings and his intentions loud and clear – but in fact, people often conceal depression and its associated thoughts, believing them to be signs of failure. Young people in particular, not wanting to disappoint their parents, or feeling alone and misunderstood, may fail to reach out to the people who would do anything to help them and to save their lives.
· However, people contemplating suicide do, in fact, frequently shed clues, leaving them behind like faint and mysterious footprints in the paths of lives unnecessarily destroyed. Clues that might be recognized by a teacher, a counselor, an administrator, a coach, a parent – if any of us but understood what we were seeing. Clues that might result in action, if those who see or hear them are trained to respond with compassion, knowledge, and courage.
I believe that the passage of the Jason Flatt Act will offer school personnel an indispensable tool in saving students’ lives. Thank you for your time this morning.