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Lawmakers consider funding suicide-prevention training for teachers

Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota, speaks about HF813, sponsored by Rep. Ruth Richardson, left, to fund student suicide and mental health awareness training for teachers. Photo by Paul Battaglia

With students spending much of their day in school, equipping teachers with the knowledge to identify those who are at risk for suicide, engage them and refer them to appropriate resources may be one practical way to address a growing crisis. 

Sponsored by Rep. Ruth Richardson (DFL-Mendota Heights), HF813, as amended, would appropriate $480,000 in Fiscal Year 2020 to a nationally recognized provider of evidence-based suicide prevention training.

The bill was held over Tuesday by the House Education Finance Division for possible omnibus bill inclusion. The companion, SF734, awaits action by the Senate E-12 Finance and Policy Committee. Sen. Carla Nelson (R-Rochester) is the Senate sponsor.

Noting that suicide is the second-leading cause of death between the ages 10 and 17, Richardson said one practical strategy to address the crisis is to ensure educators are effective partners in prevention.

“The realities are that our kids spend a lot of time at school and it’s one of the primary places that they’re living their lives,” she said. “So focusing on suicide prevention at school makes sense. It’s where our children are and it’s also where problems can manifest.”

A 2016 law requires teachers to take one hour of evidence-based suicide prevention training as part of licensure renewal. While a step in the right direction, Sue Abderholden, executive director at the National Association of Mental Illness Minnesota, said the responsibility to receive training is on teachers, which creates barriers.

The proposal would require the grantee to provide consistent, evidence-based training to all teachers in every school district, charter school, intermediate school district, cooperative or tribal school in the state.  

“We don’t expect teachers to treat students, but we want them to know the signs and symptoms and, most importantly, what to do if a student shares that they or a friend are suicidal,” Abderholden said.

Rep. Bob Dettmer (R-Forest Lake) noted that school districts set aside 2 percent of their budgets specifically for professional development, and asked if that could be used for this purpose.

“I know if you look at a school district budget of $70 million that’s a pretty big hunk of change for staff development so I just wanted to point that out,” he said. 

House nonpartisan research staff said the professional development budget is used at the discretion of school boards, but could be used toward suicide-prevention training. 

Abderholden cautioned against that approach saying that it’s more cost effective to provide consistent training statewide rather than district by district. 

“If you go in with one state contract you frankly get efficiencies, cost efficiencies in there so the total cost is a lot less,” she said.

Rep. Heather Edelson (DFL-Edina), commended the proposal and inquired about the specific course of action teachers are recommended to take when working with a potentially suicidal student.

“It really focuses more on that dialog and conversation on what to say and how to engage,” Abderholden explained. “It really helps you learn how to do that, and then you refer.”


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