NEWTOWN — A federal suicide prevention bill championed by the homegrown nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise passed the House of Representatives this week in an effort to battle the second leading cause of death for young Americans.
“Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic is already exacerbating these trends,” said U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., speaking on the House floor Tuesday night before the bill’s passage. “Sandy Hook Promise’s 24-7 crisis center, which allows people to identify and help at-risk students, has seen an increase of 10 percent in suicide tips so far.”
The bill, which is yet to be introduced in the Senate, requires states and school districts to expand evidence-based suicide awareness prevention training for middle school and high school students as a condition of receiving grants from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
At the heart of the bill is the central operating premise of Sandy Hook Promise’s free programs: School-based violence is preventable, because in most cases a student who is about to commit harm tells someone or shows signs before it’s too late.
“Threats can be identified before they materialize and those who are at risk have the opportunity to get the mental health treatment they need and deserve,” said U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., speaking on the House floor before the vote. “Nonprofits like Sandy Hook have been very instrumental in getting this bill done.”
Mark Barden, one of the founding directors of Sandy Hook Promise, who lost a child in the 2012 shooting of 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook School, said the rise in youth suicide “makes it more important than ever to prioritize this kind of training.”
From 2007 to 2015, the number of children and teenagers rushed to the emergency room for suicide-related injuries doubled, Bilirakis said. In 2017, 517 kids 10 to 14 years old died by suicide, and 6,250 people aged 15-24 died by suicide.
In Connecticut, an average of one person each day dies by suicide, according to the Connecticut Suicide Advisory Board.
“Connecticut’s state budget has zero for suicide prevention training right now, and when you talk to school superintendents, they struggle with unfunded mandates,” said Tom Steen, co-chairman of the Connecticut Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “So anything that can help fund and provide services is positive, and any support from congressional leaders is very, very welcome.”
The bill, known as the STANDUP Act, encourages states and school districts to adopt the type of programs offered by Sandy Hook Promise that teach students and adults the warning signs a youth is about to commit harm, and how to intervene.
It was not immediately clear how soon companion legislation would be introduced in the Senate.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that, with continued focus and effort, we can see STANDUP signed into law by the end of this year,” said Lauren Levin, Sandy Hook Promise’s vice president of policy and partnerships.
If that sounds ambitious, it may be. But it wouldn’t be the first time federal legislation drafted by Sandy Hook Promise made it to the White House.
In 2018, Sandy Hook Promise’s STOP School Violence Act was signed into law by President Donald Trump.
The secret, Sandy Hook Promise says, is staying above the politics.
“Staying bipartisan can be tough in these difficult times,” said Aimee Thunberg, Sandy Hook Promise’s communications director. “But it’s absolutely the core of our mission.”
Pallone, the New Jersey congressman, said the bill aimed to break the cycle of complacency surrounding suicide.
“In our committee hearing, Arriana Gross, a high school student from Covington, Ga., testified that ‘I am concerned that youth suicide has become so common that my school community and our nation is stuck in a pattern of mourning and accepting these deaths as something that is normal instead of seeing them as preventable,’” Pallone said before Tuesday’s vote. “Despite data that suicide is on the rise we can help students and the community around them identify risk factors so they can play an active role in preventing suicide or self harm.”
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