It may shock you to learn the suicide rate among middle school students is on the rise.

Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows between 2007 and 2014, there were 50 reported suicides among middle school students in New Jersey.

This is a growing problem, according to experts, because of cyber-bullying, social and academic pressures and fear and uncertainty about the dangerous world we live in.

“The belief in the past has always been that young people just didn’t struggle with mental health issues and that belief is starting to change” said Tricia Baker, the co-founder and program director of Attitudes in Reverse, a group that talks to Jersey kids in middle and high school about suicide.

“Fifty percent of mental health disorders present before age 14, and that’s why it’s so important we talk to young people about what mental health disorder are.”

Baker’s son Kenny took his own life in 2009 when he was 19 after struggling with mental health issues from the time he was a young child.

“It’s like any other illness: The sooner that you begin treatment, the more likely the success of that treatment,” she said.

Last year, Attitudes In Reverse visited dozens of high schools and middle schools, offering presentations to more than 20,000 students.

HELP IS HERE

If you feel you or someone you know may be in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-TALK, or the NJ Hopeline, 1-855-654-6735.

“We do it very carefully because we understand it’s a tough topic for kids to hear,” she said.

According to Baker, Attitudes In Reverse has two programs, one for kids in 7th and 8th grade, and another for younger students.

She said for older children, “we talk about mental health disorders, we talk about statistics, how many people receive help, and then we segue into signs of suicide.”

“We want to make sure that every young person knows the signs of suicide, not only for themselves but they might also recognize something in a friend, and they might be able to save their friend’s life.”

She said a program geared for younger kids is more relaxed and uses different terminology.

“We want to help young people build a good healthy mental health backpack, so we talk about different coping mechanisms, we talk about getting sleep.”

Youngsters who don’t get enough sleep have difficulty functioning  and their brains, including the part that manages impulse control, won’t grow and develop properly.

Baker said warning signs that middle school kids may be contemplating suicide can include “if there’s someone who’s talking or writing about going away, or wishing they were never born; if there’s someone who starts giving away their prized possessions.”

“If there’s a change in sleep or eating habits, like a dramatic change, that is a huge trigger.”

She stressed it’s critically important to educate young people about the topic so they know help is available.

“We also want to educate that 75 percent of the population who has no idea how hard it is every day to get up and live with a mental health disorder,” she said.

Baker added the goal of Attitudes In Reverse is to increase education, compassion and empathy.

“If someone thinks or acts a little differently, we should be kind to them, we shouldn’t be making fun of them,” she said.

New Jersey school districts may decide to offer different types of presentations on suicide.

Additionally, the State Department of Education requires all public school teaching staff members to complete a minimum of 2 hours of instruction in suicide prevention.

According to memo issued to school administrators last month, the instruction is to be provided by a licensed health care professional with training and experience in mental health issues, and must also include information on the relationship between the risk of suicide and incidents of harassment, intimidation and bullying.

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com

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