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LOCKPORT – The recent focus on bullying has put attention on an even more distressing issue teens face – teen suicide – and a Niagara County-based mental health group has begun offering a new program for teachers and staff at area schools aimed at handling the aftermath of teen suicide. It is called Allies 4 Life.

“One of the main things we are hoping to do is to help the schools develop a crisis team and protocol that is specifically for suicide, as opposed to when a child is killed in a car accident or a terminal illness,” said Heather A. Jones, a family support specialist at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County which is a not-for-profit organization not affiliated with the Niagara County Mental Health Association.

Mental Health Association Director Cheryl A. Blacklock said most schools have a crisis team, but they are not always ready to handle a real crisis when it occurs.

“A lot of schools are still operating under the myth that this will not happen to us. So they aren’t prepared and aren’t ready to address it the way it should be addressed,” said Stacy A. Bowman, coordinator of community education for the Mental Health Association.

Teen suicide “is a problem in Niagara County and this does occur. No one is exempt.”

Bowman said the Allies 4 Life program addresses what school staff should be looking for to prevent suicides, what to do in the case of a suicide, the responsibilities of each member of a crisis team, and resources available to teens.

Allies 4 Life is a 90-minute presentation designed by mental health professionals, which is free and open to all schools, as well as other organizations and agencies that deal with children.

Bowman said they hope to make the school presentation the first part of a program that will eventually include parents and then students.

Blacklock said the Mental Health Association realized there was a need for this kind of program after results from an annual “depression survey” of area schools conducted in the fall of 2011 raised concerns about what seemed to be an increasing number of students who had thought of harming themselves.

Those results prompted another survey last year of nearly 3,500 middle and high school students across the county focused more on suicide.

They discovered:

• Students as young as 12 reported that they have had serious issues with depression and have considered ending their life.

• Among those surveyed, 395 students reported that within the past month they have had serious thoughts about ending their life.

• They found in their survey that bullying wasn’t necessarily the top problem facing young people.

“Surprisingly bullying came in as number three. Family conflict and self-esteem and body issues were number one and two,” said Jones.

She said these findings were some of the results that were discovered as they were developing the Allies 4 Life program, but recently the need became even more apparent after three teen suicides were reported in the past three months.

While preventing suicide is its ultimate goal, Allies 4 Life also is designed to address what to do after there has been a suicide – and what not to do.

“This is an instrument for schools to use to prepare themselves when a suicide occurs in their district,” Jones said.”

Jones said schools need to take care to lessen “suicide contagion” and not glamorize what the student did, but instead look at it as an educational opportunity to address other kids and help them make better choices.

“Some schools were holding memorials [for teens who committed suicide] in huge auditoriums, full of kids and telling them all that way. According to best practices that is really not the best way to handle that,” said Jones.

Blacklock said while memorials, posters, T-shirts and bracelets created to memorialize a suicide victim were done with good intentions, these types of responses often lead to more suicides and can send a more detrimental message. She said they also should not glamorize how or where the death occurred.

“I know schools have a full plate, but they really, unfortunately are spending more time with kids than a lot of the parents,” Jones said.

“They have to be a little more aware,” Blacklock said.

Allies 4 Life asks teachers on the front lines to build an alliance of caring adults who work together, talk to each other and not assume someone else is taking care of a student who is showing warning signs.

Some signs include:

• Changes in habits, such as eating habits and school work

• Acting more withdrawn

• Absenteeism is up

• Being the clown of the class

More information is available at www.allies4life.com or by calling 433-3780.