SC Senate to decide future of teen suicide prevention act

COLUMBIA, SC (RAYCOM MEDIA) - The future of the Jason Flatt Act now rests in the hands of the South Carolina Senate and the governor after the Senate K-12 Education Subcommittee approved the measure Wednesday. The act would require all middle and high school employees to undergo two hours of suicide awareness training each year.

"Just a sweet boy. He did come home several times crying because he had been bullied. He was small. Of course, he was different, being a different nationality," Lexington mother, Cathy Neeley said while holding a picture of her son, Michael. Neeley lost him in 1992 when the 14 year old took his own life.

Neeley said she remembered the day it happened; she and her son spent the day Christmas shopping, "then that night, something clicked and he took his life," Neeley said.

The latest figures on South Carolina teen suicides show that 28 teens committed suicide in 2009. The statistics look at ages between 10 and 24 years old. Since 2010, The Medical University of South Carolina statistics show 14.5 percent of high school-aged adolescents have "seriously considered" suicide.

It's the third-highest cause of death among people between 10 and 24 years old.

The Flatt Act would require suicide awareness training for all middle and high school teachers, principals, guidance counselors and janitors to take two hours of training. The time counts toward a teacher's 120 training hour requirement as a part of keeping a teaching certificate.

The Flatt Act is named for a 16 year old Tennessee boy who killed himself in 1997 with his father's handgun. The Flatts started a non-profit called Jason's Foundation to bring awareness to teen suicide. West Virginia passed its Jason Flatt Act this week.

If South Carolina passes the act this legislative session, it would be the ninth state to require suicide awareness training in middle and high schools.

"If he had received the help he needed then, his life trajectory would be quite different," Helen Pridgen said Wednesday. Pridgen lost her 24 year old son in 2001 to suicide, shortly after a doctor diagnosed him with "major depression." Her son suffered from depression-like symptoms during his teen years, Pridgen said, but she wasn't aware of what signs she needed to look out for, "When we feel like we have failed to do that, that's a terrible burden to bear."

"Our state motto is while I breathe, I hope. Let us ensure that hope for the youth of South Carolina," Pridgen told the Senate subcommittee Wednesday. She's also the area director of the state branch of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

The Flatt Act easily passed the subcommittee. "To ask our instructors in our schools and our school personnel to be more keenly aware of it and give them some additional tools and training, we'll hopefully prevent future tragedies," Richland County Senator Joel Lourie said.

MUSC maintains a Web site that spells out certain signs that could tip parents off to a potential suicide. Some are:

  • changes in eating and sleep habits
  • loss of interest in usual activities
  • withdrawal from friends and family members
  • acting out behaviors and running away
  • alcohol and drug use
  • neglect of personal appearance
  • unnecessary risk-taking
  • preoccupation with death and dying
  • increased physical complaints frequently associated with emotional distress such as stomach aches, headaches, and fatigue
  • loss of interest in school or schoolwork
  • feelings of boredom
  • difficulty concentrating
  • feelings of wanting to die
  • lack of response to praise

Many parents, like Helen Pridgen and Cathy Neeley, notice the signs when it's too late, "When we feel we have failed to do that, that's a terrible burden to bear," Neeley said.

If the bill passes the Senate, it will move on to the Governor's office.

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