Nate Beeler

Let’s talk about suicide.

Asking someone if they are sad or if they have thought about hurting themselves doesn’t increase the risk that the individual will try to hurt themselves. Asking those questions doesn’t even increase the risk of a person thinking about suicide.

The questions need to be asked. The Youth Risk Behavioral Survey indicates that one in 10 Montana high school students attempted to kill themselves in the year before the spring 2017 survey. The YRBS is an anonymous survey conducted every other year through the Office of Public Instruction and the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Now parents, educators and health care providers need to find out who needs help so these kids can be kept safe while they recover their health.

Next week, Billings Public Schools will take a significant step toward improving students’ mental health. The schools will offer confidential depression screenings for all 1,267 sixth-grade students. In November, Billings Public Schools will offer the same screening for all ninth-graders.

The depression screening program has been in planning since last school year. School counselors and school psychologists have been involved, along with mental health care professionals in the Billings community.

The school screening follows a U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendation. The task force reviewed numerous studies of depression screening and recommended screening for adolescents aged 12 to 18 years. “Screening should be implemented with adequate systems in place to ensure accurate diagnosis, effective treatment, and appropriate follow-up,” according to the task force composed of independent health care experts.

The Billings screening program includes a classroom presentation about help for depression. Students will be encouraged to let parents, teachers and counselors know if they are concerned that they or another student needs help.

The school district is offering the Signs of Suicide (SOS) depression screening, which is a series of written questions. Counselors will score the surveys, and students whose scores indicate a moderate or high risk for depression will be asked to meet privately with a school counselor for another screening that same day. If the second survey also shows moderate or high risk, the student’s parent will be called. The school counselor will tell the parent about the screening scores and encourage the parent to follow up with the child’s pediatrician. For parents who need a referral, counselors will provide contact information for the Yellowstone Youth Crisis Network, a coalition of local agencies that help youth.

Kathy Olson, executive director of education for the school district, said parents can opt their students out of the screening. We encourage parents to have their students participate in this brief, confidential screening. Mental illness is most dangerous when it’s undetected and untreated.

“Our goal is to get the kids help and bring it to the attention of parents,” Olson said.

Our schools routinely screen for vision, hearing and dental problems. The depression screenings are one more way to keep kids healthy and safe.

The 2017 Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 9.5 percent of Montana high school students had attempted suicide one or more times during the 12 months before they were surveyed. YRBS results indicated that students who reported suicide attempts were also more likely to report other serious problems, such as having been forced to have sexual intercourse, feeling unsafe at school, being bullied and using illegal drugs.

On the other hand, the majority of students who attempted suicide also participated in sports and got mostly A’s and B’s. There is no “typical” profile of a student at risk for depression. Students who have other problems may be identified as needing help that may lead to a depression diagnosis. Students who seem to have a great life and no serious problems still can be suffering with depression.

Talking is the beginning of getting help. It’s a relief for students to know that they aren’t alone dealing with depression, and that asking for help is OK.