Suicide. Gangs. Violence. Guns. Drugs and alcohol.
Once thought relegated to the leprous streets of a big-city
slum, they now have now infected many of America's schools. Weapons
checks are no longer only an airport annoyance but sometimes a shakedown
in the acned hallways of teen-age academia.
The horrific example of Littleton, Colorado, and othersuch
headline fodder have left little doubt that today's tragedies can happen
anywhere. New York City. The Bible Belt. America's Bread Basket. Right
here in River City.
In the case of Littleton, two teen boys shot, killed and
maimed dozens of fellow students before taking their own lives.
"Why didn't teachers communicate? Why didn't the students
communicate? Because the teachers are left out of the loop. The students
are left out of the loop."
So says a San Antonio physician who has become an ardent
advocate of "education" as a poultice for our sometimes-fevered school
Saul Wilen, M.D., is chief operating officer of of International
Horizons Unlimited, an education consulting firm headquartered in San
Antonio. IHU has produced a school suicide prevention program. The firm
is in production of a violence prevention series and eight other school
emergency management issues training modules for educators and students.
Wilen's national educational consulting and resources firm
specializes in problem solving and the application of viable solutions
for all industries.
The educational consulting firm has developed an innovative,
new computer-based tool for suicide prevention for use in elementary,
middle and high schools.
In conjunction with JRP Technologies, IHU
recently completed the suicide prevention tool, which consists of four
CD-ROM modules, each oriented to a different target audience within
the educational system. Administrators, counselors, teachers and students
are included in this team-based approach.
Wilen says the company's program is the first in the United
States to include teachers, "and we're the only program in the world
to include students."
"Suicide prevention is a good one to use as a hallmark
of what we're really all about" at IHU, he says.
"They're all related: gangs, drugs, alcohol, violence,
Work by Wilen's colleague, Dr. Ruth Fagan, a project development
consultant and professor of social work at the University of Texas at
Austin, shows that people who commit homicide are often suicidal themselves.
The school violence that captured headlines over the past
year or so has been perpetrated by students who were themselves suicidal,
Wilen reiterated in an interview with the field publication Counseling
Today, published in July 2000. "So it may not just be one life that
is saved by the mastery of prevention techniques."
"Annually there are 20,000 to 21,000 homicides compared
to 31,000 suicides," Wilen says. "At school age, for every one suicide
there are 100 to 200 attempts - not just thinking about it, actual actions.
Fifty percent of all adolescents have contemplated suicide."
Those are not his numbers, Wilen says. They come from the
National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and the
American Association of Suicidology.
The U.S. Surgeon General has declared suicide a public
health emergency. "It's frightening. We're in an epidemic."
Suicide claimed the lives of more than 30,000 Americans
in 1997, according to the most recent data compiled by the American
Association of Suicidology. This number includes more than 4,000 people
under the age of 25, making it the third leading cause of death among
young people. But in spite of these tragic statistics, our response
has been largely one of crisis management versus actual prevention,
according to a July 2000 article in Counseling Today.
Ever since Littleton, says Wilen's colleague Larry Stewart,
"You find crisis management industry is flourishing in schools." Most
of such programs are centered on what to do after a crisis occurs, he
says. Conversely, "We are crisis prevention. Our attitude is these things
are not earthquakes. We do teach crisis management - just after the
prevention is established.
According to Wilen, the program's goal is to "educate to
prevent suicide" by teaching early recognition of danger signs and means
of proactive intervention. It also includes a guide for communication
before, during and after a crisis.
The idea for the program emerged eight years ago when many
of the consultants with whom Wilen works began to "express concern about
the devastating impact of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, violence
and other problems on their communities, schools and workplaces," he
told Counseling Today.
IHU formed study groups on the issues to determine what
sort of approach would work best to combat them. Suicide was the first
problem they examined.
"This growing problem, especially among our young people,
really underscores the need for a comprehensive suicide prevention initiative
in our communities." has really come to be defined as intervention and
crisis management after the fact," he told the journal. "This stems
partly from an unwillingness on behalf of many of us to openly discuss
issues such as suicide."
"No one has been willing to do the two things necessary
to deal with these issues," Wilen says. "The first is to talk about
them. There seems to be a universal fear that if you talk about them
they will occur more, that if you put it in the closet then there's
no more problem. What we've found is that if you put it in closet it's
actually a bigger problem."
JRP Technologies designed a multi-media that
is a team-based school suicide education tool for creating the "Total
School Prevention Team."
"Change will not occur unless there's a grassroots campaign
Every member of the school community must be on this prevention team.
Every teacher, student, parent, board member You don't need 10 crisis
teams. You need one proactive team."
"To effectively prevent and intervene, all stakeholders
in the education process (administration, staff, faculty, students,
parents, school board, law enforcement, and the community in general)
must be involved with understanding the at-risk factors that impact
"In looking at the measures that were already in place,
we found that almost all schools do have what they refer to as a "crisis
management team'," Wilen told the journal. "But only about 10 percent
have ever actually met, and 1 percent have ever gone through any sort
of exercise together."
In some cases, he said, some of the members did not even
know that they were part of the team.
A case in point was San Antonio's Judson Independent School
District, which began working with the IHU program in 1999.
"We basically had a program in place to deal with the aftermath
of a suicide or other act of violence, but nothing that amounted to
true prevention," Charles Neumeyer, associate superintendent of the
16,000-student JISD told Counseling Today.
"Kids have been shot. There are suicides in our community,"
says Jeannie Palmer, director of guidance and testing for the JISD.
She has been in education for 22 years and counseling for 12 and says
there is an increase in the awareness of depression and suicide.
It is too early to tell the impact of the program at JISD,
where it is still in the initial stages, Wilen says.
Ideally, Wilen told the journal, full implementation will
be accomplished over the course of three years, which gives schools
an opportunity for reinforcement and updates of the system.
"We are really enthusiastic about the potential of this
product," Wilen told the journal. "If we can provide more information
and more stimulus to enable those involved in education to really prevent
such tragedies, then perhaps they will move a step closer to focusing
on what school should be all about - that is learning and preparing
our young people for the future."
The Suicide Prevention and Education program is currently
available from International Horizons Unlimited. Wilen said the company
will work with schools who are interested in purchasing the program
to help meet their needs.
For more information, see the International Horizons website
at www.intlhorizons.com or contact the company at International Horizons
Unlimited, Corporate Center, 4207 Gardendale, Suite 105, San Antonio,
Wilen, has been tapped as the keynote speaker at the Texas School
Safety Summit being held at Austin's Holiday Inn Airport South on Jan.
29 at 9 a.m. The keynote address is entitled "Safety: A Cornerstone
for Effective Learning" and will stress the need for students and staff
to feel safe at school if effective learning and teaching are to occur.
On Jan. 31 the firm is producing seminars on suicide prevention and
educational accountability for the Texas Education Agency's Midwinter
Administrator's Meeting being held at the Austin Convention Center.
Information is available on the PROJECTS page at www.intlhorizons.com
or by calling 210-692-1268
What would you do if one of your friends threatened to commit suicide?
you laugh it off?
you assume that the threat was just a joke or a way of getting attention?
you be shocked and tell him or her not to say things like that?
you ignore it?
If you reacted in any of those ways you might be missing an opportunity
to save a life, perhaps the life of someone who is very close and important
to you. You might later find yourself saying, "I didn't believe she
was serious," or "I never thought he'd really do it."
Suicide is a major cause of death. The American Association
of Suicidology estimates that it claims 35,000 lives each year in the
United States alone; authorities feel that the true figure may be much
higher. A growing number of those lives are young people in their teens
and early twenties. Although it is difficult to get an accurate count
because many suicides are covered up or reported as accidents, suicide
is now thought to be the second leading cause of death among young people.
If someone you know is suicidal, your ability to recognize
the signs and your willingness to do something about it could make the
difference between life and death.
No doubt you have heard that people who talk about suicide won't really
do it. It isn't true. Before committing suicide, people often make direct
statements about their intention to end their lives, or less direct
comments about how they might as well be dead or that their friends
and family would be better off without them. Suicide threats and similar
statements should always be taken seriously.
People who have tried to kill themselves before, even if
their attempts didn't seem very serious, are also at risk. Unless they
are helped they may try again, and the next time the result might be
fatal. Four out of five persons who commit suicide have made at least
one previous attempt.
Perhaps someone you know has suddenly begun to act very
differently or seems to have taken on a whole new personality. The shy
person becomes a thrill-seeker. The outgoing person becomes withdrawn,
unfriendly and disinterested. When such changes take place for no apparent
reason or persist for a period of time, it may be a clue to impending
Making final arrangements is another possible indication
of suicidal risk. In young people, such arrangements often include giving
away treasured personal possessions, such as a favorite book or record
If someone confides in you that he or she is thinking about suicide
or shows other signs of being suicidal, don't be afraid to talk about
it. Your willingness to discuss it will show the person that you don't
condemn him or her for having such feelings. Ask questions about how
the person feels and about the reasons for those feelings.
Ask whether a method of suicide has been considered, whether
any specific plans have been made and whether any steps have been taken
toward carrying out those plans, such as getting hold of whatever means
of suicide has been decided upon.
Don't worry that your discussion will encourage the person
to go through with the plan. On the contrary, it will help him or her
to know that someone is willing to be a friend. It may save a life.
On the other hand, don't try to turn the discussion off
or offer advice such as, "Think about how much better off you are than
most people. You should appreciate how lucky you are." Such comments
only make the suicidal person feel more guilty, worthless, and hopeless
than before. Be a concerned and willing listener. Keep calm. Discuss
the subject as you would any other topic of concern with a friend.
Whenever you think that someone you know is in danger of
suicide, get help. Suggest that he or she call a suicide prevention
center, crisis intervention center or whatever similar organization
serves your area. Or suggest that they talk with a sympathetic teacher,
counselor, clergyman, doctor or other adult you respect. If your friend
refuses, take it upon yourself to talk with one of these people for
advice on handling the situation.
In some cases you may find yourself in the position of
having to get direct help for someone who is suicidal and refuses to
go for counseling. If so, do it. Don't be afraid of appearing disloyal.
Many people who are suicidal have given up hope.
They no longer believe they can be helped. They feel it
is useless. The truth is, they can be helped. With time, most suicidal
people can be restored to full and happy living. But when they are feeling
hopeless, their judgment is impaired. They can't see a reason to go
on living. In that case, it is up to you to use your judgment to see
that they get the help they need. What at the time may appear to be
an act of disloyalty or the breaking of a confidence could turn out
to be the favor of a lifetime. Your courage and willingness to act could
save a life.