Some school counselors and lawmakers are concerned about the mental health of Georgian children, citing a recent increase in suicide deaths.
Jacob Dreiling, a mental health counselor in the Decatur public school system, said he’s noticed an increase in suicidal thoughts among students he sees.
“I do suicide assessments in kindergarten, through 12th grade,” he said. “Students are feeling pressure and mental health issues in so many.”
As of November, 67 Georgian children had committed suicide, according to data obtained from the state’s Bureau of Investigation under the Open Records Act. Even without a full count for the year, 2021 has already passed 2020’s total of 55. The suicide death rate for this age group has fluctuated over the past decade.
In light of these numbers, Georgia State Representative Mesha Mainor said she wants to make suicide screening mandatory at the start of each school year for all public school students ages 8 to 18. .
His proposal comes amid a push to address mental health by Republican House leaders and received some bipartisan support, but the bill did not pass the committee.
School counselors and therapists already perform suicide screenings on students who express suicidal thoughts or are referred by others, but this bill would require screenings for all students.
Mainor, an Atlanta Democrat on the House Education Committee, said the screenings could help parents identify children who may be less likely to talk about suicidal thoughts.
“One death is one death too many,” said Mainor, who lost his brother to suicide in 2010. “With this bill, I want parents to be aware of what could happen.”
Although Dreiling said he thought the screenings could be helpful, he expressed concern that universal screenings would amount to a massive increase in counselor workload.
Georgia’s student-to-school counselor ratio was 432 to one for the 2019-2020 academic year, according to the American School Counselor Association. The association recommends one counselor for every 250 students.
“There aren’t enough school counselors to handle the workload they have,” Dreiling said.
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Doris Smith, co-founder of the National Organization for Colored People Against Suicide, said she supports stronger mental health services in schools. However, she predicted that parents might be hesitant about universal screenings, given the stigma surrounding counseling services.
“It’s going to be quite difficult to get their permission to screen their child,” said Smith, who lost her son to suicide in 1992 at the age of 27.
Mainor said she was willing to allow parents to opt out of screenings during a House Education Committee hearing on the bill on Friday. The bill as tabled does not deal with that.
At the same hearing, Rep. Miriam Paris, a Democrat from Macon, questioned whether educators have the ability to take on “another layer of psychological work.”
“Having to wear so many hats in your profession, I think, is another thing that leads to burnout,” Paris said.
Committee chairman Matt Dubnik, a Republican from Gainesville, expressed support for the bill but hinted at possible amendments.
“It’s something that needs to be taken very seriously,” Dubnik said. “We will work with you to find a way forward to work on this legislation.”
A legislator on the committee questioned whether suicide prevention has a place in schools.
“I worry, on the face of it, if this is a conversation that needs to be had with kids in a school system,” said Rep. Dominic LaRiccia, a Republican from Douglas. “Children in many families have never thought about it…and if you pay attention to it, all of a sudden you’ve triggered a thought in someone’s mind.”
Dreiling said parents and counselors shouldn’t be afraid to talk openly about suicide with children.
“The idea of suicide exists,” Dreiling said. “You let them know that it’s okay to tell you about it. You do not sow the idea.
This article appears on Now Habersham in partnership with FreshTake Georgia