The Blaine County Journal News-Opinion - We've Got The County Covered

SOS Program Trains Students to Acknowledge, Care and Tell


February 19, 2020

Although the International Morse Code of …---… was chosen as the international distress signal by the nations who met at a maritime conference in the early 1900s, the sequence of three dots and three dashes followed by three more dots really isn’t supposed to stand for the three letters SOS. The code string was simply a unique signal that would transmit clearly and quickly via telegraph and wouldn’t be confused for other communications. Today, it is the universal signal to attract attention, signal distress, and ask for help.

In contemporary times, those three letters also abbreviate Signs of Suicide, indicators that send a signal of distress and demand a response from those perceptive enough to read and translate them. Training people to decode these signs is the objective of the SOS Signs of Suicide® (SOS) Program, a school-based prevention program designed for middle school (ages 11-13) and high school (ages 13-18) students. Nationally recognized, easily implemented, and cost-effective, it is the only school-based program to show a 40 percent reduction in suicide attempts by a randomized controlled study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2004.

In partnership with the Blaine County Health Department, Chinook High School Counsellor, Fay Friede rolled out the SOS program on Wednesday, January 29 with juniors at the high school. To begin the conversation about mental health, Friede worked with Jana McPherson-Hauer, Blaine County Health Department’s Health Supervisor and Lead Local Health Official. Developed more than a decade ago by behavioral health professionals, the SOS program helps students learn to talk openly about depression and suicide.

Through a video and guided discussion in a single class period, students learned to identify warning signs of suicide and depression. At the end of the session, students completed a seven-question screening for depression to further encourage help-seeking and connect students at risk with trusted adults. The curriculum raises awareness about behavioral health and encourages students to ACT (Acknowledge, Care, Tell) when worried about themselves or their peers. This action-oriented approach motivates students in the face of a mental health emergency.

“The SOS program is an important effort to reach the people students are most likely to turn to in a time of crisis – their friends,” McPherson-Hauer said.

After receiving a recommendation for the program from Karl Rosston, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Suicide Prevention Coordinator for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS), Chinook Schools decided to implement the program. The school obtained two kits through the DPHHS, which volunteered to purchase the SOS Program for all Montana secondary schools willing to adopt the program. For the initial year of implementation, the DPHHS purchased a program for both the high school and middle school, according to Friede. The regular cost is $300 per kit.

“Beyond wishing that we didn’t need such a program, I like that parents have access to what we are presenting. Parents of students in grades 6-12 were sent information on the program with an SOS parent newsletter,” Friede stated.

The program teaches students that suicide is directly related to mental illness—typically depression—and that it is not a normal reaction to stress or emotional upset. This approach stands in direct contrast to other programs that seek to destigmatize suicide by separating it from mental illness. SOS concentrates on teaching youths to recognize the signs of suicide and depression in themselves and others and to take the specific actions needed to respond to those signs. SOS is also currently being used in other non-school settings that serve youth, such as social clubs, after school programs, and juvenile justice systems.

The program’s primary objectives are to educate teens that depression is a treatable illness and to equip them to respond to a potential suicide when signs manifest in a friend or family member using the SOS technique. As its goals, the program lists the following:

• Decrease suicide and suicide attempts by increasing student knowledge and adaptive attitudes about depression

• Encourage personal help-seeking and/or help-seeking on behalf of a friend

• Reduce the stigma of mental illness and acknowledge the importance of seeking help or treatment

• Engage parents and school staff as partners in prevention through “gatekeeper” education

• Encourage schools to develop community-based partnerships to support student mental health.

According to an informational flyer prepared by Rosston and the DPHHS, several features of the program make SOS a good fit for Montana schools since it:

• Can be easily implemented into a variety of classes (i.e. Health, English, Social Studies, Communication Arts, or Physical Education).

See Page A6: Signs of Suicide

• Uses existing school resources and only requires one or two people to coordinate.

• Can be implemented in as little as one classroom period (or up to three).

• Is very flexible. Schools can use the parts of the program that fit their needs.

• Has research verifying that it is safe, effective, and not a burden to school support staff.

• Promotes collaboration between schools and parents as well as community mental health providers.

• Serves as a risk management tool for schools.

• Has been shown to be an effective prevention program for a wide variety of demographics, in both rural and urban settings.

After receiving SOS training, area students should begin to translate those three letters as Acknowledge, Care, Tell (ACT). Still today, SOS remains the easiest and best signal to use whenever people find themselves in trouble.

Friede reports that initial feedback from students indicates a positive response to the program. Their feedback included such comments as “good information, good video, and the acronym (ACT) makes the steps easy to remember.”

Each student received a wallet card that shares the Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number and website on the front and Warning Signs of suicide and What to Do in response on the reverse. These behaviors encourage ally rather than bystander behavior with the objective that lives can be saved.


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