Montgomery County Public Schools is the 16th largest in the United States and the largest in Maryland. Dr Christina Conolly has served as the school district’s Director of Psychological Services since 2015 and has spent her career advocating for youth suicide prevention.
She tells schools “Don’t wait until somebody dies to put a program in place. SOS truly does help to prevent suicide. Think about the prevention work ahead of time that is needed to save lives. This program will help schools identify kids and give them the help they need, so they don’t get to a place where they are going to die by suicide.”
In 2006, Dr. Conolly was an early career school psychologist when her previous school district experienced three student suicide deaths in 45 days.
Dr. Conolly advocated for universal suicide prevention for her students but, at that time, most school-based suicide prevention programs had shown little efficacy. In fact, many believed the common misconception that teaching students about depression and suicide could actually lead to suicidal behavior.
Additionally, Dr. Conolly faced a lack of funding for suicide prevention programming. Tight budgets remain common nationally, but then and now SOS’s evidence-based program is more affordable than schools realize, even offering scholarships as needed to ensure that all students can receive suicide prevention education.
Following the third suicide death, Dr. Conolly received funding from an unusual and unlikely source – The Oprah Winfrey Show.
As Dr. Conolly sat in the show’s audience one day, the famous talk show host surprised each guest with a $1,000 donation as part of her “Pay it Forward” challenge. Guests were instructed to use the donations to support a charitable cause of their choice.
Determined to bring safe and effective suicide prevention to her district, Dr. Conolly consulted with the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), which recommended SOS as an effective evidence-based program for her students.
SOS had recently been recognized as the first school-based suicide prevention program to demonstrate significant reductions in self-reported suicide attempts with the publication of its first randomized controlled trial. Dr. Conolly shared NASP’s recommendation with her administrators along with her $1,000 seed money and the district agreed to move forward.
SOS Signs of Suicide
Dr. Conolly bought her first SOS programs with Oprah’s $1,000 donation. After piloting the program, she was determined to bring suicide prevention to her entire district. She shared her dedication to youth suicide prevention and her need for financial support to bring suicide prevention programming to her entire district with the SOS team. SOS donated the additional program materials Dr. Conolly needed – becoming one of the first official scholarship recipients of SOS.
After piloting SOS, the district saw an increase in referrals as students began to reach out for help. Some faculty responded with skepticism on whether the program was working. Dr. Conolly responded by saying, “It’s absolutely working. Now, these students are getting the help that they need.” After receiving SOS training, students began to practice ACT (Acknowledge, Care, Tell), one of the program’s main messages. Dr. Conolly adds, “Once you start doing SOS, it raises awareness. You teach kids how to ACT, then they move forward and tell trusted adults.”
"Out of all the money you can spend on curriculum and other things, this is a drop in the bucket when it comes to saving a life. SOS truly helps save lives."
Dr. Christina Conolly, Montgomery County School District Director of Psychological Service
How they Expanded the Reach of SOS
In Montgomery County, Dr. Conolly utilized SOS across the district, using SOS materials to engage all school staff, including coaches, office staff, custodians, and cafeteria workers.
She prioritizes the importance of engaging parents, saying: “I’ve talked to a lot of parents who say, ‘My child isn’t suicidal, and we don’t need this.’ I explain that most students who are suicidal talk to their friends, and the program is going to teach their child to help these friends.” 90% of schools using SOS report an increase in students seeking help for themselves or a friend and 95% believing the program also reduces stigma in schools.
The district has been delivering SOS to the entire student body for two years, teaching the program’s life-saving skills to 88,000 middle and high school students each year. For schools considering suicide prevention, Dr. Conolly shares her thoughts: “Every life is precious, and every life is valuable. Out of all the money you can spend on curriculum and other things, this is a drop in the bucket when it comes to saving a life. This program truly helps save lives.”