Legislators hope new law will help prevent some teen suicides

SEATTLE -- It was May 2009 when Debbie Reisert's grandson, Brian Stephens, committed suicide. He was a sophomore at White Pass High School in Lewis County.

A friend of Brian’s notified the school counselor she thought something was wrong and that Stephens needed help. Neither Reisert nor Stephens’ mother received a phone call about the meeting, and the 16 year-old committed suicide just days later.

Now, Reisert is hoping new legislation in Washington state could help prevent people like her grandson from committing suicide

“He went from being happy-go-lucky to gone,” said Reisert.  “Every single day our lives have changed and will never be the same.”

Reisert says the counselor called her grandson into the office and did a screening after the friend expressed her concerns, but didn’t feel Stephens was suicidal.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in youth 10-24 years-old.  According to a 2010 Washington Department of Health survey, 18 percent of 10th graders have contemplated suicide.

“This breaks my heart because we know it’s preventable,” state Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, said.  “If we got in and intervened early enough it could have made the difference.”

Orwall sponsored a bill that passed last legislative session that directs school districts to train staff on how to recognize signs of suicidal thought in students. Under the bill, school nurses, counselors and social workers will do the screening and must receive training from mental health providers. Teachers will also be trained in identifying which students to refer to counselors for help. The task force also hopes to develop an educational piece for students to let them know how to help a friend in need.

“We want a team in every school in our state that is comfortable screening and referring kids for mental health treatment,” Orwall said.

The Troubled Youth Task Force met Tuesday at the University of Washington School of Social Work to discuss how to implement the legislation. They plan to meet again on Nov. 26, and then in February and April.  The training will be rolled out next school year.

“It’s all worth it if we save one life.  That’s really what this is about,” said Orwall.