By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

The Montclair schools have partnered with Hackensack Meridian Health Center, the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris and the township health department to help address and prevent suicide within the community.

The township made the announcement at the Sept. 24 council meeting, when the township declared September as Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Interim Schools Superintendent Nathan Parker and Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, vice president for behavioral health services at Hackensack Meridian Health Center, were on hand when the announcement was made.

“We’re grateful that we’re having the opportunity to collaborate with partners, and hopefully we won’t fail others,” Councilwoman Renee Baskerville said after reading the proclamation.

The participating groups have been in talks with Mayor Robert Jackson and the township health department during the summer in advance of the partnership, Sumter said.

The announcement of Montclair’s partnership comes a month after Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law a bill that requires K-12 schools to provide age appropriate instruction on mental health topics as part of the health and physical education curriculum. The move means that New Jersey is the second state in the country, after New York, to require schools to address mental health topics with students.

The sooner the curriculum is brought into the schools, with students being helped to address mental health issues from a young age, the better, said Marvin Gorsky, senior director of clinical services for the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris.

Among other trends, hospitals are reporting an increase in emergency room visits by adolescents with suicidal thoughts, Gorsky said.

Sumter said mental health professionals are noting higher levels of stress in young people. “So we’re really trying to wrap our arms around coping strategies and de-stress techniques with our youth,” she said.

Sumter said although more youths are seeking help through emergency room visits, by that time they are in crisis. It is critical that families, school professionals and others learn to recognize the signs of crisis before they reach a critical point.

One of the first moves will be to put up signage with the numbers for state and national suicide prevention hotlines.

Mental Health Association staff has already conducted a series of one-hour workshops with Montclair school staff, including bus drivers and classroom aides, on recognizing signs of a student in crisis. In addition, association officials will lead a seminar at St. James Church in Upper Montclair in November at the request of the church.

The association conducted training sessions with faculty and support staff at Buzz Aldrin Middle School, Nishuane and Charles H. Bullock School from November to March. In addition, it provided individual counseling to students and faculty at several of the schools in May after the deaths of several community members.

Specifics on the programs and support services the partnership will offer are in the infancy stages, said Gorsky. Discussions are ongoing with the mayor and council, the health department, school officials and the hospital.

But, hospital officials said they will be back in the schools offering training and professional development for teachers and staff, and for providing resources for students and families.

Sumter said Montclair’s suicide prevention partnership should be a model for all New Jersey towns follow.

When Parker became the school superintendent in Upper Saddle River in 1991, the community had just experienced a series of five to six suicides.

The police department worked with mental health experts, and determined that some of the suicides were copycat incidents. In the early 1990s, Parker said, “It became something that became cool to do, almost,” though he said he did not want to use the term “romanticize.”

Police and mental health experts decided that using the word “suicide” in describing an incident carried the risk of causing others to attempt suicide. To avoid copycat incidents, Parker said, it became practice among law enforcement to use the word “sudden death.”

“We used to think that the kid who was a troublemaker in school was going to do violence,” Parker said. In actuality, he said, the people who are most risk for violence are those who are isolated: both children and adults. To help address this, the Upper Saddle River schools set up a screening program in which every six months, the schools identified students and adults who appeared to be isolated. And the schools helped those people by setting them up with support networks and other services.

In her address, Baskerville said Montclair was still healing from cases of sudden death in the past year, but did not elaborate on what those cases were.

It is estimated that 129 people die by suicide in the United States each day. It is estimated to be the second-leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24, and the third leading cause of death for people ages 25 to 34. In New Jersey, the Department of Health estimates that 60 percent of all violent deaths each year are due to suicide. According to the New Jersey Violent Death Reporting system, in 2015, the suicide rate among young people ages 10 to 24 was 5.7 cases for every 100,000 people.