The Office of Suicide Prevention at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) is responsible for raising awareness of suicide as a public health problem and using data to identify populations and geographic areas that need assistance.
MDPH continually monitors and maintains awareness of issues and concerns across the state, which they use to inform procurement efforts. The team also proactively identifies effective organizational approaches being used to educate, inform, and assist residents in all aspects related to suicide.
Data collected every two years from the CDC demonstrates that the percentage of high school students who struggle with behavioral health issues has increased almost every year between 2007 and 2017.
In monitoring this data, MDPH recognized the immediate need to proactively address youth depression and suicidality. They wanted to educate youth during school hours, but without taxing educators who already had a lot on their plate.
Additionally, the MDPH office observed that it was often more common for local communities to implement youth suicide awareness only as a response to a death by suicide.
Finding A Solution
Initially MDPH received support to fund youth depression and suicide prevention education through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
MDPH required a program that provided youth education, a screening tool to help identify youth who were struggling, and a training component for adult audiences.
SOS Signs of Suicide
They found the right solution in SOS: an evidence-based program designed to be delivered in schools or small group settings, that includes training for school staff and parents, as well as a screening questionnaire.
An added benefit was that SOS only requires one class period, one time per year, to demonstrate an increase in knowledge and adaptive attitudes around depression – as well as a reduction in suicide attempts. Today, MDPH supports the SOS program through both state and federal funding.
“Mental health education isn’t a once and done. The more students, teachers, and parents learn, the more they can anticipate and address challenges that arise.
In an ideal world, mental health and resiliency education starts in younger grades and continues annually.”
Kelley Cunningham, MDPH Director Suicide Prevention Program
How they Expanded the Reach of SOS
Since 2013, MDPH has funded 373 SOS programs in 283 schools, with SOS providing a truly proactive approach to educating students about what they might be experiencing, and how to advocate on behalf of themselves or a friend. It also trains teachers and other adults about the importance of depression awareness and suicide prevention, while informing students that adults are aware of what they are struggling with and can help.