Suicide rates in the United States have increased steadily since the turn of the century, and while Nebraska’s rates are some of the lowest in the Midwest, suicide is the number one cause of death for Nebraskans ages 10-14 and 15-24, according to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention.

With school-aged adolescents at the highest risk of committing suicide, legislators in the Nebraska Unicameral are considering approaches for preparing public school employees to recognize the signs of mental health troubles in students.

Public school nurses, teachers, counselors, psychologists, administrators and social workers are already required to participate in one hour of suicide awareness and prevention training per year.

Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue says students would be better served if the one-hour training session focused on a holistic view of behavioral and mental health, rather than waiting to act until depression and suicidal thoughts overpower a student’s mental state.

If passed, Crawford’s LB 120 would revise the legislation requiring public school faculty to receive training on suicide prevention and awareness to instead require training on behavioral and mental health.

“It’s an hour that’s already required, so we’re not adding any additional hour requirements,” Crawford said in the March 4 hearing of LB 120 before the unicameral’s education committee. “It’s just allowing more flexibility in that hour that is already provided.”

The training would aim to prepare teachers and staff to address students’ mental health concerns before the concerns escalate to thoughts of suicide. The text of the bill reads: “Such training may also include, but not limited to, topics such as identification of early warning signs and symptoms of behavioral and mental health issues in students, appropriate and effective responses for educators, trauma-informed care, and procedures for making students and parents or guardians aware of services and supports.”

Rita Bennett, the president of the Lincoln Education Association, a member of the Nebraska School Education Association and a Lincoln Public Schools teacher for 28 years, testified in support of the proposal.

She said she’s had many sleepless nights worrying about whether she was doing enough to support her students dealing with behavioral and mental health issues. She thinks broadening the training guidelines beyond just suicide awareness and prevention will help teachers care for their students more effectively.

“The next time I find myself awake at night thinking of my most fragile students, I want to do so with the confidence from having more in my toolkit that will help me to better understand their needs and how best to help them,” Bennett said.

Support for the bill also came from the Nebraska Department of Education, the Nebraska Association of Behavioral Health Organizations and the Nebraska State Suicide Prevention Coalition.

No one testified against the bill, and the committee took no action.