Health advocates urge suicide awareness instruction for grades 7-12

Dylan Sherman

BISMARCK -- Kennedy Gjovik told a North Dakota legislative committee that she attempted her first suicide at 10 years old.

“I was in the third grade when the cyberbullying started,” she said. “I was added into a group chat that kids from my previous school were in. The first message was, ‘Why don’t you go kill yourself?’”

Gjovik, now a college freshman, testified in front of the Senate Human Services Committee on Feb. 9, in favor of Senate Bill 2311.

A chalk drawing on an Augusta University sidewalk as part of Suicide Prevention Month in Augusta, Ga., Wednesday afternoon Sept. 23, 2020.

The bill sponsor, Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, said the bill would get mental health resources and information to students.

“It should be taught directly to students,” she said. “An assumption that, if the resources are out there, students will access them, seems a little thin.”

SB 2311 would require all schools to add to their health curriculum instruction on mental health awareness and suicide prevention, instruction on identifying risk factors, identifying at-risk peers and availability of resources.

The bill also would allow for school districts to collaborate with other districts and provide instruction through virtual learning.

Heckaman said the bill was modeled after Gjovik’s personal experience as someone who didn’t get help at school.

The North Dakota Youth Behavior Risk Survey of 2019, the most recent survey conducted by the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, suggests Gjovik is not alone. The survey showed 30.5% of high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless for at least two weeks in a row, an increase of 1.6 percentage points from 28.9% in 2017.

Nearly one high school student in five, 18.8%, said they had seriously contemplated suicide in the 12 months leading up to the survey in 2019, a 2.1% increase from 16.7% in 2017.

“That is telling right now we haven’t been going in the right direction,” Heckaman said. “This is very sad in the day and age that we live right now. There are plenty of things we can do.”

Gjovik said she hopes this bill can help students who face similar mental health issues as she did while in school. One way would be to make sure that school personnel notify parents or authorities when they believe a student is at risk.

“In sixth grade the school guidance counselor found out I was self-harming,” she said. “The guidance counselor did not tell my family or the authorities.”

When she was 14, Gjovik said, she had a friend who took his own life.

“I didn’t know how to handle [the situation],” she said. “If I had more information, maybe I could have saved my friend.”

K. William Boyer is the Managing Editor of the Devils Lake News Journal. He can be reached at kboyer@gannett.com, or by phone at (701) 662-2127.  

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