ICYMI: Bringing Substance Abuse, Suicide Prevention Programs to Providence Schools

Sarah Dinklage

Sarah Dinklage, executive director of RI Student Assistance Services. District News Report – Winter 2014 Issue

It is a topic that is difficult to introduce, even more difficult to discuss. Whether the conversation is between a parent and child, teacher and student or friend to friend, the subject of suicide can make people so uncomfortable that they may avoid the issue altogether.

Having that conversation could save a life.

According to Sarah Dinklage, executive director of Rhode Island Student Assistance Services, Rhode Island has one of the highest suicide attempt rates in the nation. The reasons are unclear but factors that contribute to suicide risk include mental illness, peer and/or family rejection for any reason including sexual orientation, academic pressure, financial issues, early childhood trauma, immigrants struggling to assimilate to a new culture, or drug and alcohol abuse in families, any of which can cause a student to try to end his or her life.

Rhode Island Student Assistance Services has been partnering with the Rhode Island Department of Health and Providence Schools for the past six years to provide professional development in suicide prevention to school personnel. The training, called QPR (Question, Persuade and Refer) is funded by a federal grant from the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Foundation.

The 1-1/2 hour program trains adults to recognize early warning signs of emotional distress and suicide in youth, how to connect with a young person in distress and how to get help. In Providence, RISAS has trained the district’s nurses, guidance counselors, school social workers, psychologists and health and physical education teachers.

In addition to training adults, RISAS has worked with those closest to students: their peers. Research indicates that adolescents are more likely to turn to peers than adults when facing a suicidal crisis.

The SOS Signs of Suicide Prevention Program is an award-winning, nationally-recognized program designed for middle and high school age students. The program teaches students how to identify the symptoms of depression and suicidality in themselves or their friends and encourages help-seeking through the use of the ACT technique (Acknowledge, Care, Tell.)

The SOS Program, which is conducted over two class periods, teaches students that depression is a treatable illness. Through the use of an educational DVD and discussion guide, students are taught that suicide is not a normal response to stress, but rather a preventable tragedy that often occurs as a result of untreated depression. Students are given specific action steps, encouraged to engage in a discussion about these issues with their parents as well as utilize the peer-to-peer help-seeking model known as ACT.

RISAS has trained a cohort of 300 youth at Alvarez, Central and Juanita Sanchez high schools in the signs of suicide and conducted booster sessions over the last three years.

“Asking is preventing and anyone can save a life,” said Dinklage.

RISAS has had a longstanding partnership in Providence Schools since 1987 when Mt. Pleasant High School was selected for the statewide pilot program. Masters-level trained student assistance counselors are at Central, Alvarez, Classical and PCTA high schools and Roger Williams, Esek Hopkins and Gilbert Stuart middle schools to provide prevention and early intervention services for two to five days per week depending on the size of the school. Student assistance counselors provide an assessment and conduct individual and group sessions for students with alcohol, drug, school, family, peer or other problems that can lead to alcohol and other drug use.

“By placing a trusting, specially trained counselor right in schools, students are more likely to seek help before problems become severe,” said Dinklage.

Services are 100 percent confidential and do not become part of a students’ record. Half of all referrals come from students themselves while they are also referred by school personnel. Parents are encouraged to call student assistance counselors directly if they feel their child needs help. Counselors are available to meet with students before and after school or during the school day.

One of the benefits of having a student assistance counselor as part of the school’s wellness program is having someone with special training onsite available to assess students for substance abuse, who may show up for other problems.

“By taking this approach,” said Dinklage, “we can reach students much sooner and can begin to address drug and alcohol issues and identify other risk factors early.” A strong working relationship with the district’s building administrators, school nurses, pupil personnel support staff and faculty has been critical to the program’s success.

Just last year, more than 1,000 students in Providence received services for drug and alcohol abuse, peer and family violence, trauma, parental substance abuse, mood disorders and suicidal thoughts.

According to Dinklage, studies have shown that socio-emotional health has a direct effect on student achievement and future success. “We have to address emotional and social issues in order to increase academic achievement,” she said. “When kids are anxious or worried or are using alcohol and other drugs, their cognitive ability declines. School can be a refuge for some kids.”