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Suicide prevention program focuses on teens

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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 program.

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.' "

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