As the first academic year of a suicide prevention law’s implementation begins, some members of the Ohio State community are wondering if the changes being made in many of Ohio’s public schools will help OSU students in the long-run.
Sixteen years after Clark Flatt lost his 16-year-old son, Jason, to suicide, the Jason Foundation, a mental health advocacy group founded in Jason’s namesake, has succeeded in implementing the Jason Flatt Act in Ohio and 11 other states across the United States.
The Jason Flatt Act, specifically dedicated in Ohio for Joseph Anielski, requires that high school staff and teachers be trained for suicide prevention so they can see the signs of suicidal behavior in teens and know how to reach out. The law was brought to Ohio by state representative Marlene Anielski, Joseph’s mother, after Joseph committed suicide in 2010. Gov. John Kasich signed the law in December, and this school year is the first year of its implementation in Ohio public schools, as well as charter schools and science, technology, engineering and math schools.
Though the law does not directly affect or implement any requirements on universities in Ohio, members of OSU’s Suicide Prevention Program believe the law will bring positive change.
“Suicide awareness training is straightforward and simple, but it really can save lives,” program manager Wendy Winger said.
Others said the training is a life-saving skill.
“It’s like teaching someone psychological CPR — anyone can learn,” said Darcy Granello, the suicide prevention program’s principal investigator.
Winger and Granello agreed that while the Jason Flatt Act doesn’t directly affect university policy, it will help with student mental health in the long run. With the legislation, more students who would have previously not been reached out to by teachers at their high school will come to OSU after already receiving help.
“A great thing (the Jason Flatt Act) can do is raise awareness of mental health issues,” Granello said. “We want to see the stigmas surrounding mental health disappear so that people treat mental diseases like any other bodily disease.”
The bill did not come without opposition. Flatt, who founded the Jason Foundation, said the idea for requiring suicide training in teacher in-services was not initially well received, but, “seeing almost 25 percent of the states having passed the Jason Flatt Act, and seeing the results it has had, is heart-lifting.”
Clark credits OSU President Emeritus E. Gordon Gee, a board member of the Jason Foundation, for getting the act passed in Ohio.
“He wasn’t calling in favors,” Flatt said. “But he was helping people genuinely understand how important this legislation is.”
Gee joined the board of the Jason Foundation when it first formed, when Gee was chancellor of Vanderbilt University and worked with Flatt. Since joining the board, Gee has seen the Jason Flatt Act enacted all over the country. When asked about what it was like to see the legislation come to Ohio, he said it was a victory for the state.
“The Jason Flatt Act has been successful because of the love of the Flatt family, and the earnest effort of those pushing the bill in each state. Now that it’s enacted in Ohio, I can see awareness growing, and opportunities for more student groups to form around mental health issues,” Gee said in an interview with The Lantern.
While the bill doesn’t directly affect or require anything more from universities, both Flatt and Gee agreed it will help stop the rollover of suicidal tendencies, developed in middle school and high school, to college — where the stressors increase substantially for students who have been previously ignored.
Suicides are the third leading cause of death of college-aged students, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but in 80 percent of those who commit suicide, there are advance-warning signs, according to the Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Centre of BC. The Jason Flatt Act aims to help train those who see students most — teachers — to recognize these warning signs.
Over the past three years, OSU has trained almost 5,000 students, faculty and staff through different programs offered at the university such as REACH.
REACH stands for “Recognize warning signs, Engage with empathy, Ask directly about suicide, Communicate hope, and Help suicidal individuals access care and treatment,” according to the OSU Suicide Prevention website. REACH is one of several programs offered at OSU, including an online screening program called RUOK? Buckeyes and online faculty training. REACH training is available for anyone and can be scheduled on the Suicide Prevention Program’s website.
Some OSU students think the law is an important step.
“It just makes sense to have a law like this,” said Angie Onorato, a fourth-year in molecular genetics. “There’s so much emotional change in high school and teachers are so involved in students’ lives.”
Others agree that it’s a simple solution to a bigger problem.
“It seems like such an easy way to make a big difference,” said Erika Dahlby, a fourth-year in anthropology.
Other students think the Jason Flatt Act will solve some of those problems.
“The bill can only help. The more awareness there is, the more understanding there will be, and that’s the root of the negative perception of mental health — lack of understanding,” said Nolan Salazar, a fifth-year in accounting.