Signs of Suicide Program: Effective or Outdated?

Graphic by Mel Egan

By Gavi Azoff

News Reporter

Following the loss of three high school students in 2013, Newton Public Schools introduced the Signs of Suicide program. Though the program has seen some success over the past few years, students and teachers have begun to realize some flaws.

Signs of Suicide (SOS) is presented to freshman and juniors at both Newton North and Newton South in the winter, and teaches students how to recognize signs of suicidal tendencies in others and themselves.

When it comes to suicide prevention, SOS remains effective because if a student screens in, meaning their response to questions on the survey are worrying, help is provided. Psychologists meet with these students personally in order to provide them with proper help and resources.

Even though SOS presents those benefits, students like junior Zanny Weinreb, who is a member of South’s Mental Health Coalition, AWARE, recognize the importance of the current prevention system, but do not feel that SOS suffices.

“We do need a suicide prevention program at South because it is a very important subject that affects the community,” Weinreb said. “However, SOS is not the right way to do so.”

For starters, the students see the videos as outdated and generic, as they focus solely on recognizing the signs of suicide, rather than encompassing mental health as a whole.

Any mental health issue should be treated like a physical illness; medication, professional help, and support. These videos perpetuate a culture where too many people still feel uncomfortable discussing mental health and shy away from the subject, which only worsens the hurtful stigma.

Weinreb continues by stating how she disagrees with the way SOS portrays mental illness.

“The situations in the videos are very unrealistic and not relatable,” Weinreb said. “Consequently, some students find it funny and treat the issue like a joke, [which] has the opposite effect. That makes people think suicide is funny and don’t treat it as a serious issue, which it is.”

In addition, the one dimensionality of SOS leads students who struggle with other mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder to believe that their challenges are invalid, which is not the case.

Newton resident Lila McCain is one of many people who introduced a suicide prevention program to the schools. After losing her daughter Karen to suicide in October 2013, McCain became part of Newton Cares and played a vital role in bringing SOS to the high schools.  

McCain recognizes Weinreb’s concerns on the effectiveness of Signs of Suicide. She understands that SOS has flaws, but sees the program as the start of a long process.

McCain adds that few other cities have implemented initiatives like Newton’s SOS in order to ensure that students are provided with a strong mental health education.

“Ideally, I’d like to see all mental health issues incorporated into the curriculum of middle and high schools,”  McCain said. “Every middle school and high school has sex education and teaches kids about drugs and addiction. Mental health is a lot more prevalent than these topics and deserves so much more attention.”

SOS encourages students to vocalize their feelings about mental health issues. And in a school environment plagued with stress, SOS remains a rare opportunity for the student body.  

For students interested in reducing the stigma surrounding mental health issues, the AWARE club is described by senior and president Grace Leuchtenberger as “a student founded group supported by a couple guidance counselors who create programs at South to raise mental health awareness… We focus on outreach and awareness, especially with South being a high achieving, success based community.”

For student seeking help, Weinreb also wants to add that the SOS program gives inadequate advice by suggesting for a student to ask for help when they have reached their breaking point.

“SOS recommends reaching out for help when someone vocalizes suicidal thoughts, when you should get help when you start to feel bad,” Weinreb said.

AWARE meets in the Faculty Dining Room during Wednesday J-blocks and all are welcome.