SOS program aims to prevent teen suicide

Depression in children and teens has become a serious concern nationwide.
Since the school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 — a massacre in which two students killed 12 students and a teacher, injured 24 others, then committed suicide — school systems have revamped school psychology programs to combat teen depression, bullying and suicide.

In military high schools, the Department of Defense Dependents Schools strives for one school psychologist per every 1,000 students, according to Janice Venable, the school psychologist at U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart’s Patch High School.
DODDS school psychologists are required to provide a suicide prevention program each year, Venable said.

DODDS adopted the SOS Signs of Suicide program, which  has been used in thousands of schools in the U.S. since 2000, according to the program website,

This month, 212 10th-graders in Patch High School are learning about depression, bullying and suicide. According to Venable, the program has never been as vital as it is now, with suicide rates in teens on the rise.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 24.
Closer to home, teens in the Stuttgart military community have sought out counsel about depression.

“This school year, unlike any other, students and parents have been calling me, concerned about themselves or their children being depressed,” she said. “Knowing there’s somebody to come and talk to about this gives them an opportunity to open up a little bit more.”

The SOS program was created by Screening for Mental Health, Inc., and includes a video presentation, followed by an anonymous survey students take to determine whether they should talk about their feelings with an adult or health care professional.

The SOS video includes interviews of teenagers who have been affected by depression, including one who survived a suicide attempt, and stresses the importance of talking to a responsible adult about mental health concerns.
The video also shows examples of the incorrect and correct way to respond to a friend showing signs of depression, which is classified as a disease — not just feelings of sadness.

“They can actually see situations they might be involved in,” Venable said. “Adolescents know each other better than their parents do. Friends are going to be the first to notice.”

After watching the SOS presentation, 16-year-old Joy Armstrong said she was surprised to learn that teens who are depressed will talk about suicide outright, although it is often seen as a joke or an exaggeration by their friends.
“It surprised me that people actually say ‘I just want to die’ or ‘I just want to kill myself,’ and actually mean it,” Armstrong said.

Before the SOS presentation, Armstrong didn’t even know who the school psychologist was. Now, she does, and if she ever has a friend who is acting depressed, she has a plan of action: “I would know now how to talk to them,” she said.

Armstrong is just one example of the impact the SOS presentations have made on the student body, Venable said. In the first two sessions, on paper five students expressed the need to talk to someone. Others are stopping by the school counseling office.

“I had a student … who brought me a letter a friend wrote to him, saying she wanted to kill herself,” Venable said. “He said, ‘Here, you need to have this.’
“Another said, ‘My friend said I need[ed] to come talk to you,’” she added.
The fact that students are taking action — not keeping depression a secret — is a positive sign for Venable that the SOS program is working, to help students address mental health needs and prevent tragedy.