On a Sunday afternoon in 2014 in Pell City, a small community, about 45 minutes northeast of Birmingham, Jennifer Sellers was cooking her 14-year old daughter’s favorite dinner. Sydney loved turkey breast, brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes and asparagus. Sydney walked into the kitchen.
“She came out and was going to put some pizza roles in the oven,” says Sellers. “I stopped her and told her that I cooked all her favorite things for dinner, and I’d come get her when the dinner was ready.”
Twenty minutes later, Sellers found her daughter hanging from her bed. She had committed suicide. In Alabama, suicide is the second leading cause of death in youth ages 12 to 16.
Sellers later discovered her daughter was being bullied and texting with an unknown adult. While parents are sometimes the last to know about their teen’s lives, educators are in a different position.
A bill passed by the state legislature that could be signed by the governor would help teachers better prevent teen suicides.
Inspired to Act by Son’s Death
Clark Flatt’s son committed suicide in 1997. Since then he’s pushed states to pass laws requiring all certified school personnel to receive training and support in suicide recognition and prevention. It’s become known as the Jason Flatt Act and is named for his son. Seventeen states have passed the measure. Clark Flatt says no one is trying to turn teachers into counselors or therapists.
“What we want to do is provide the teachers with information tools and resources to better help them be able to identify or respond to a young person who might be struggling with suicidal thoughts,” says Flatt.
Joy Doehring is the president of the National Alliance of Mental Illness’ Birmingham office. She was also a teacher for almost 30 years. She says parents often miss cues, feeling their child’s behavior is merely teenage angst. She believes if the Jason Flatt Act becomes law in Alabama, it would save lives.
“I just can’t emphasize enough all the educating that has to be done and has to start at the school and hopefully the administration who take the wheel and really promote this,” says Doehring. “I’m telling you, education is the only way this is going to be dealt with.”
A Story from Texas
Texas is among the states that have enacted the law but Von Wade was already using material from Clark Flatt’s organization in his school. Wade is a high school principal in Fairfield, Texas.
He recalls a student telling friends her single mom was working that night. The student said she was going to be alone and could end all of her problems.
“Well, it started to bother one or two of her friends. They had gone through the training with the students and knew this was a cry for help,” says Wade. “They reached out to some other teachers who contacted the mother. The mother rushed home from work. The girl had actually taken some prescription medicine and they got her to the hospital in time.”
Jennifer Sellers, the Pell City mother whose 14-year-old committed suicide, sees advantages to the proposal. But with one caution. Students often transfer among schools. If teachers and counselors from one school don’t communicate concern for a student to the next school, that student may slip through the cracks with devastating consequences.