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AIR co-founder Tricia Baker, pictured with dog Miki, speaks at the suicide prevention conference on September 20.

National Suicide Prevention Week has just ended, but the school year has just begun, and for many parents keeping students healthy both physically and mentally is at front of mind.

The mental health side of things will be the focus as the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies (NJAMHAA) and Attitudes in Reverse (AIR), both based in Mercer County, host their annual suicide prevention conference. The ninth annual conference, with the title “Back to School: Breaking the Barriers,” takes place virtually on Monday, September 20, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. To register for the free conference visit www.njamhaa.org/events.

NJAMHAA recently shared some sobering anecdotes and statistics about suicide among student populations, especially in light of the added difficulties posed by the disruptions to normal life brought about by the pandemic.

“On August 28, 2021, 19-year-old former child actor Matthew Mindler, most famous for his role in the film ‘Our Idiot Brother,’ was found dead in a wooded area near Millersville University, where he was a freshman. The Pennsylvania Coroner’s Office concluded that Mindler died by suicide. Unfortunately, Matthew’s story is a common one. According to the American Society for the Positive Care of Children, there are more than 5,400 suicide attempts made by young people in grades seven through 12 every year. Additionally, four out of five teenagers who attempted suicide have given clear warning signs.

“As students are returning to in-person schooling, mental health needs to be at the forefront of discussions, especially as the ongoing impact of the pandemic can make transition from being primarily at home to being back at school difficult for many students. . .

“Experts say that there was an increase in suicide attempts among young people during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has been due to social isolation and families experiencing instability, which could result from parents’ stress related to financial struggles and health-related concerns. Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that suicide attempts that resulted in emergency room visits through March 20, 2021, were 50.6 percent higher among girls between the ages of 12 and 17 years than during the same period in 2019. Among boys between the ages of 12 and 17 years, emergency room visits due to suspected suicide attempts increased by 3.7 percent compared to the number in 2019.

“The return to in-person schooling can be challenging and unsettling for some students. School personnel must consider mental health in their plans. This includes providing resources and school-based mental health services, such as those made available through School-Based Youth Service Programs (SBYSPs), and connecting students and families to mental health treatment professionals. The earlier that these resources can be accessed, the better it is for the students, as delays in treatment can result in worsened symptoms and suicide risk,” NJAMHAA president and CEO Debra L. Wentz said in a statement.

“It is fitting that the return to school in New Jersey coincides with National Suicide Prevention Week, which seeks to educate the general public about the warning signs of suicide and suicide prevention. We have a unique opportunity to reduce stigma around mental illness and suicide and encourage positive mental health practices. This situation also reinforces the importance of ensuring that SBYSPs, which offer these and other critical services, are maintained, funded and expanded to serve even more students.”

Part of NJAMHAA’s outreach efforts include the September 20 conference, which Wentz kicks off with opening remarks. Other sessions include talks on “Building Diversity and Acceptance in the School Community,” led by Hopewell Valley superintendent Rosetta D. Treece; “School-Based Therapy Dog Program: How to Establish One and How Dogs Support Mental Health and Suicide Prevention,” led by AIR co-founder Tricia Baker; and a panel discussion on overcoming stigma.

The day concludes with “Returning to School: Signs to Look for in Students,” presented by Susan Tellone, clinical director of the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, and closing remarks by AIR co-founder Kurt Baker.