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Franklin County Struggles With Spike In Teen Suicides

Franklin County has seen a sharp increase in teen suicides over the past year. As health professionals look for reasons for the spike, a new state law requires public schools to train teachers and staff in suicide awareness and prevention. As part of her job as Franklin County Coroner, Dr. Jan Gorniak is head of the child fatality review board. And the board spotted a troubling trend.

One of the things that we noticed: We were reviewing a number of suicides. We said 'Let's go back and look at this. So we're at the point now that ten suicides in one year, which is more than the past four years total. Are we missing something? Is there something else that we can do?

Dr. Gorniak says the youngest teen suicide victim in Franklin County last year was 13 years old. She says it's impossible to determine why so many Franklin County teens took their lives in 2012. As coroner, she hasn't identified any common threads or common themes that connects the ten deaths. Ohio State University researcher and author Paul Granello lost a brother to suicide in 2000. As part of his research, he's conducted mental health screenings in 100 Ohio middle and high schools. He says more than 20 percent of high school students screened had what he calls "significant" mental health problems and a smaller percentage were at risk for suicide.

The rate of suicide in the country is increasing. It's increasing among young people faster as a group than it is across the general population. But it's not surprising to me that we have those numbers in Franklin County given the size of population we have.

Granello says suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people after accidents and homicide. He welcomes Ohio's new legislation to train teachers and other school personnel to spot students at risk for suicide. During class change at a Central Ohio high school, a group of about 20 students are headed to health class for today's lesson on major depression. Guest lecturer Mary Brennen-Hofmann introduces the topic with a film. "This film will show how depression affected four teenagers. They each had common experiences, but what they had in common is that each were changed by their depression..." Brennen-Hofmann coordinates suicide prevention services at North Central Mental Health. She'll visit a school when asked by its administrators. The assistant principal at this high school allowed WOSU to observe class, but asked that the school not be identified. Brennen-Hofmann says in this instance, the health teacher asked for instruction on ways to help students identify risk factors for major depression and suicide.

Probably, Facebook or social media is the best place to find out what's really going on inside their heads. Drastic changes in behaviors. A lot of times they're tired with no energy. They may be angry. Also they're feeling trapped or they're having reckless behaviors like drinking.

Brennen-Hofmann says she'll continue visiting classrooms to build suicide awareness among students. But, Ohio's new law goes one step further; it requires school districts to train teachers, school nurses, counselors, and administrators to help them spot students at risk for suicide. Granello says the new required training could save some young lives. "I mean we're trying to train them as gatekeepers that they can recognize the signs, you know, the kind of warning signs, and get that kid to the appropriate help that they need to have."