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Lawmakers Advocate Suicide-Prevention Measure

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WASHINGTON--School districts that are doing nothing to prevent teen-age suicide far outnumber those with prevention programs in place, members of the Congress told a House subcommittee last week.

The legislators were among those testifying in support of the "youth suicide prevention act'' (HR 457), which would earmark $1 million in grants to help schools and communities develop model programs to discourage teen-agers from taking their own lives.

"It is much easier to find school districts that are doing nothing in this field than to find school districts that are doing something in this field,'' Representative Tom Lantos, Democrat of California, told the House subcommittee on elementary, secondary, and vocational education. "It's a national tragedy.''

And, said Representative Gary Ackerman, Democrat of New York, many of the programs that are already in place are "reactive rather than proactive.''

Mr. Lantos was among the cosponsors of HR 457, which was introduced in the Congress by Representative Ackerman in January.

Senator Frank Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, has introduced a similar but more ambitious bill in the Senate.

While both bills would set aside funds for demonstration suicide-prevention programs, the Senate bill (S 1190) also seeks to establish a national resource center and clearinghouse on youth suicide, as well as a national hot line. In addition, it would allocate more money for research on the causes, warning signs, and best strategies for prevention of teen-age suicide.

The measure would cost $33.5- million over four years, an aide to Senator Lautenberg said.

'A National Problem'

Suicide has become the second-leading cause of death among young people, experts say, with more than 5,000 people between the ages of 15 and 24 taking their own lives each year. Yet, although the rate of suicides among young people has tripled since 1950 and doubled since 1960, the numbers appear to have stabilized since 1980, according to experts.

Even so, witnesses at the hearing said, the numbers may actually be much higher. They noted that many suicides are reported as accidents, because the families of victims often fear that they will be stigmatized if the real cause of death becomes known.

According to one estimate, 11 percent of the nation's young people--more than 2 million teen-agers--attempt suicide each year, said Joanne Brokaw-Livesey of the Youth Suicide National Center. Her group is among more than 10 national organizations, including the National PTA, that have supported the House bill.

Bergenfield's Tragedy

Public awareness of the problem was heightened in March, when four teen-agers killed themselves in Bergenfeld, N.J. In that incident, two sisters and two young men were found on March 11, seated in a car with the engine running inside a locked garage.

They apparently died of carbon-monoxide poisoning, according to police. (See Education Week, March 18, 1987)

Scattered accounts of other young people's suicides in the weeks that followed were highly suggestive, experts said, of the "copycat'' or "cluster'' effect of youth suicide.

In testimony before the House subcommittee, the director of special services for the Bergenfield school board said the New Jersey tragedy has spurred weekly three-hour meetings on the subject that bring together the community's mental-health director, school superintendent, police chief, and borough administrator.

"We need schools and communities to establish cooperative relationships for 'post-vention' and prevention,'' said the director, Tom Kavanagh. "As soon as a kid drops out of school now, we're going to have an outreach worker to work with that kid.'' Three of the four teen-agers who killed themselves were high-school dropouts, he noted.

He said students also told school officials that they had underestimated the grief that teen-agers feel over the death of a peer. All four of the suicide victims had been close friends with another young man who had died months earlier when he fell off a cliff. His death had been reported as an accident, Mr. Kavanagh said.

Conservative Opposition

The suicide-prevention bill is the second such measure introduced by Representative Ackerman. The House last year unanimously passed his earlier bill, but it was never taken up in the Senate.

The proposals attracted opposition from conservative groups, some of which labeled the proposal "death education.'' Teaching students about the problem of youth suicide, such critics argue, may prompt more young people to take their own lives.

In a press release circulated at the hearing, the Family Research Council, a research and policy group, said that "the family and religion''--not the schools--are the keys to combating the problem of youth suicide.

Mr. Lantos countered: "The fact is large numbers of teen-agers have no families, and large numbers of teen-agers have families in name only. And large numbers of teen-agers have only tangential relationships with the church.''

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