BOSTON — Brian Fernandes’ son, Nicholas, was 17 years old and three months away from graduating from high school when he killed himself.
Since his son’s death, Fernandes has made it his mission to remove the taboo on talking about suicide, and educate himself about preventing it. He wants teachers to do the same.
Fernandes is pressing for passage of a bill requiring public school teachers and administrators to insert some suicide prevention and awareness training into existing professional development programs. The bill, filed by New Bedford Democrat Rep. Antonio Cabral, does not dictate the type of training or the number of hours required.
Fernandes and Cabral said the goal is to start a conversation at schools about suicide and ways to prevent it.
“We need to start a conversation and it needs to be a very public conversation,” Fernandes told lawmakers on the Education Committee last week.
Nineteen states have passed laws requiring school-based suicide prevention training for teachers, students or both, according to Fernandes. Massachusetts and New Hampshire are the only New England states without a requirement, he said.
Most people who commit suicide suffer from mental illnesses, often depression, Fernandes said. “They suffer from a treatable illness, and they die from that treatable illness,” he said.
Yet, too many people are afraid to discuss it because of the stigmas surrounding mental illness, he said.
School personnel are in a unique position to observe a child’s social behavior, Fernandes said. Many of the teachers he has talked to say they want suicide prevention training, but administrators often think talking about it will encourage more attempts.
“Not talking about it is not helping,” said Fernandes, a small business owner from New Bedford.
Teachers need to be trained on what to look for, Fernandes said, adding “there are things they can do.”
Fernandes told lawmakers that months after his son’s suicide he attended a program at his high school to award a $5,000 scholarship where he was told “you can have a couple of minutes to talk, but don’t say the word suicide.”
“When Nicholas died nobody talked about; nobody mentioned it. They were afraid they would encourage other suicides,” he said.
A year after his son died, Fernandes attended the funeral of one of his son’s friends who committed suicide.
Fernandes said he would eventually like to see students educated on suicide prevention, but for now he hopes to get teachers talking.
In 2007, 50 people aged 10- to 20-years-old committed suicide in Massachusetts. Nationwide 4,400 suicides occurred in the same age group, according to data compiled by the state Department of Public Health.
In 2010, there were 600 suicides in Massachusetts across all age groups, from 5 to 85. “If we had 600 homicides in Massachusetts people would be talking,” Fernandes said after the hearing.
The number of suicides in Massachusetts is 2.7 times higher than homicides, according to DPH data.
Suicides in Massachusetts are also on the rise, increasing an average of 4 percent per year. There were 129 more suicides in 2011 than in 2003, according to DPH. In 2011, emergency rooms in Massachusetts handled 6,346 patients with self-inflicted injuries. Of that number, 4,388 people were discharged from the hospital, and 553 were completed suicides.
People need to tell their personal stories and suicides statistics need to shared, advocates said. September is suicide prevention and awareness month.
Former Boston Red Sox pitcher Brian Rose attended the hearing to promote awareness.
“We need to get information out that there is always someone there to help,” Rose told the News Service after the hearing.
Rose, who now works for Bristol County District Attorney Samuel Sutter as a community affairs program manager, said one of his roles is to work with teens to help them make good choices, and stay away from drugs and other behaviors that lead to desperation.
“Sometimes these kids don’t make the right decisions. If we can give them options . . . “ Rose said.
The district attorney’s office responds to all suicides to investigate an unattended death. Anytime there is a suicide in the New Bedford region, Sutter calls Fernandes. The two know each other because Sutter’s son was friends with Nicholas Fernandes.
After parents, teachers spend the most time and have the most influence on a child’s life, making it vital for them to increase their awareness about suicide, Cabral said. Cabral said he crafted the legislation loosely so it would not be a mandate on school districts, and would give administrators leeway on how to incorporate training into professional development.
“Who’s best to really begin this process besides parents but teachers? They spend as many hours with students as parents do. We feel this is an appropriate place to begin this,” Cabral said. “We require a lot of issues in professional development already, but we think this is such an important one.”
Cabral filed similar legislation last session. Lawmakers on the Education Committee sent it to study.
Guidance counselors, teachers and administrators need to know one of the easiest ways they can help prevent suicide is to ask a child, “ ‘Are you, right now, thinking about hurting yourself or committing suicide?’ You have to be that direct. You can’t ask, ‘You aren’t going to do anything stupid?’ “ Fernandes said.