When students face crises or even attempt suicide, county teachers and guidance counselors are on guard to intervene. But even concerned educators have no way of knowing about a student who was in trouble over the weekend when the bell rings Monday morning.
For Movita Pickens, guidance coordinator for county schools, the fight for more information is one of her biggest battles. If teachers and counselors are going to be able to help, they need hospitals, police and paramedics to share information, Pickens says.
With 104 suicides by Maryland teen-agers reported in 1989, it is a problem that ought to be addressed at all levels of government, Pickens says.
"If a child attempts suicide on Friday or Saturday night and is taken to the emergency room, although the Health Department may have information, we don't get that in the schools unless the parents or student discloses it," Pickens said.
"I met with the Health Department and we are trying to set up a network so that we in the school system will know, not to stigmatize the students, but on a need-to-know basis. Once they make the attempt, it puts them at high risk for doing it again. I think the Health Department made the decision it can collect information on contagious diseases, but not this."
Henry L. Westray, state coordinator of Youth Suicide Prevention for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said that while information is not routinely shared among state and county agencies because of confidentiality laws, providing more opportunities for discussion in schools may help.
"There are issues of confidentiality as far as the family is concerned," Westray said. "After a suicide attempt, families often are embarrassed and ashamed, but if schools have programs to encourage kids to talk and make the school setting such that they feel free to, more will be shared."
Pickens is not taking state recommendations lightly. With October designated as Suicide Awareness Month in Maryland, she is making sure students know where and how to seek help. Pocket reference cards will be distributed to county students in grades 6 through 12, offering resource and reference telephone numbers. Last week, guidance counselors, pupil personnel workers and psychologists attended a day-long conference on youth suicide prevention.
The cards, conference and other wellness workshops during the year are being paid for with an $11,000 annual state grant.
County students also will be trained as peer counselors to assist friends and classmates seeking help.
"Students are not being asked to do the job of professionals, but to be good listeners and let them know resources are available," Pickens said.
Pickens is anxiously awaiting the 49,600 pocket-size cards that are being printed with a drawing of a helping hand on the front and resource information and telephone numbers on the back. Also included is the 24-hour Youth Crisis hot line set up by the governor's office. The number is (800) 422-0009.
"Students will have ready resources to call for help and earlier intervention," Pickens said. "The neat thing about it is that even though it's an 800 telephone number, if it comes in from Annapolis, it has regional hookings. There will be people in that area ready to go."
Westray and Pickens both credit Gov. William Donald Schaefer for his initiatives in 1986 to address the problem.
Westray's position, the statewide hot line and school grants are the result of recommendations from a Schaefer-appointed state task force created to address the problem that Westray said can be combatted by dispelling myths and increasing discussion.
"Overall, our goal is to provide information to Maryland citizens about suicide prevention," Westray said. "If we talk about the feeling, other options can be discussed and it decreases the likelihood of them carrying it through."