Lethal Impulse

How does Nebraska try to prevent teens from taking their lives?

It depends on the area and its schools.

McCook Junior High spends a week on the subject, with a video, discussion and counselors at the ready. The Omaha Public Schools hand out wallet-size crisis cards. The Millard Public Schools train teachers and students to watch for warning signs and seek help.

Most schools in Lincoln connect families with free mental health evaluations. Beatrice mental health counselors hold depression screenings.

In Geneva, the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center designed an intensive supervision program for its students -- three-quarters of whom enter at a risk for suicide. It has not lost a student to suicide since the program began 15 years ago.

Other schools across the state may deal with suicide explicitly in health class and lessons on bullying, drugs and alcohol and violence. Or not.

That's because Nebraska does not require its schools to teach students or train school staff in suicide prevention. Nebraska does relatively little to coordinate suicide prevention activities. Unlike 17 other states, Nebraska pays no one to do it.

As a whole, Nebraska lacks a uniform approach to stopping teens from killing themselves. It varies from community to community.

Nebraska has some pieces in place for a state strategy. Like many states, it reacted in 1999 to a "call to action" on suicide from the U.S. surgeon general by forming a prevention committee. The group targeted its efforts in southeast Nebraska when death records showed a troubling number of suicides there.

It assembled curriculum that teachers, police officers and others can use, for free, to understand suicidal behaviors.

But as in many other states, funding and enthusiasm for suicide prevention has waned. The rate of teen suicide in Nebraska was virtually the same in the five years beginning in 1999 as it had been in the five years before the "call to action."

Funds for the initial southeast Nebraska efforts are gone. Now the group is seeking a threeyear, $1.2 million federal grant to pay a staffer, start new efforts and market the existing curriculum. Many people who could use it don't know it exists because of a lack of promotion.

Though not required, the State Department of Education does offer free suicide prevention training. A handful of districts use the training each year.

There is agreement among those involved in suicide prevention within Nebraska that more needs to be done.

It will take more parents asking their children whether they might hurt themselves.

It will take more mental health treatment outside Omaha and Lincoln.

It will take everyone in schools knowing how to identify and react to suicidal behaviors.

It will mean facing an uncomfortable subject directly and addressing related concerns, such as shrinking quality time within families, divorce, substance abuse, bullying, access to guns.

It starts with knowing that this is not a hopelessly incurable mental illness mystery.

"Suicide is much more than a mental health problem, " said Dr. Dan Daly, a psychologist and youth care director at Girls and Boys Town. "It is a social problem ... society's problem."