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Suicide-Prevention Efforts Are Questioned

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Oak Brook, Ill.--School suicide-prevention programs may be doing mentally-ill teenagers more harm than good, according to a national expert on trends in youth suicide.

Dr. David Shaffer, professor of child psychiatry at Columbia University, said here that many of the prevention programs that have proliferated over the past three years "might actually facilitate suicide and suicidal behavior."

He made his remarks before some 250 mental-health and education professionals convened for the American Medical Association's first meeting on the mental-health concerns of adolescents.

The need for greater collaboration between the two fields was underscored in a speech to the group by Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association. Noting that educators were increasingly being called upon to address a range of concerns for which they have no expertise, she told the health professionals, "We need you."

Dr. Shaffer noted in his speech the scarcity of research studies gauging the effectiveness of school suicide-prevention programs, and speculated that there may be a link between these "pyschologically naive" programs and a 1985 jump in the teen4age-suicide rate--which had stayed stable for the five previous years.

He noted also that many stable students find these programs a waste of time; more than 80 percent of the 2,000 students he surveyed who had taken part in one of the programs knew most of its main points before attending it.

But a more important drawback, he said, is the potential effect of such programs on teenagers who have thought about or attempted suicide. By "normalizing suicidal behavior," he maintained, these programs are unintentionally "legitimizing it in some way."

In addition to youth suicide, the conference addressed a wide range of issues that affect teenagers, including questions of sexuality, such as early pregnancy and aids, substance abuse, gangs, and family violence.

Speakers noted that while most of these problem areas cross social and economic lines, poor teenagers who have little access to psychiatric care may be particularly vulnerable to their long-term consequences.

Counselors, Collaboration

Others, like Ms. Futrell, noted that the lack of adequate health-care options has forced schools to assume a greater responsibility for counseling and support than they may be able to fulfill.

"We can no longer afford to care in isolation--us in our schools and you in your offices," Ms. Futrell told the health professionals.

"To put it more simply," she said, "American's teachers need your expertise. We need you. We are educators, not psychologists, we're not social workers, we're not doctors, and yet we are being called upon every day to perform those roles."

"And as we spend more time on those issues, something has to give." the nea president said.

Ms. Futrell and others urged that teachers be given better training in identifying and dealing with mentally-ill teenagers.

And speakers cited the pressing need for more school counselors. At the secondary-school level, they said, each counselor may be responsible for 400 students; at the elementary-school level, they are few and far between.

The dramatic social and family transformations of the last 30 years have made greater cooperation between teachers and mental-health professionals a necessity, not a luxury, said Myra Herbert, coordinator of social work services in the Fairfax, Va., school district.

"We're saying 'Just Say No' to children whose mother may have a new live-in boyfriend every six months," she said.

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