SPRINGFIELD — The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred a renewed focus on mental health issues, particularly among students. Some Illinois lawmakers say schools must bolster suicide prevention procedures to better identify warning signs.
Back in 2015, the General Assembly passed “AnnMarie’s law,” named after 11-year-old AnnMarie Blaha of Orland Park, who died by suicide after two classmates allegedly set up fake profiles on social media and persuaded her to take her own life.
The law called for the Illinois State Board of Education to develop a statewide suicide awareness and prevention policy for schools. Prevention policies must include reporting procedures, intervention methods, and professional development training for teachers and staff.
The House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee this week passed HB 577 , which is aimed at building on AnnMarie’s law by specifically identifying in state statute groups of students who are more at-risk of committing suicide — including students who are homeless, identify as LGBTQ, or suffer from substance abuse.
The bill’s chief sponsor, State Rep. Lindsey LaPointe (D-Chicago), said the reason it’s important to identify these most vulnerable groups in state statute is to force Illinois schools to direct mental health services to those students.
“When school districts are being directed by guidance from the Illinois State Board of Education, it just doesn’t have the same teeth as it would if it was in statute,” LaPointe said. “We can’t take for granted that school districts in every pocket of Illinois know that LGBTQ youth are at higher risk. People are going to pay attention more when it’s in state law.”
However, other lawmakers believe explicitly writing these groups into state law could result in schools being held liable if a student attempts or dies by suicide.
State Rep. Steve Reick (R-Woodstock) said although he supports strengthening suicide awareness, he’s concerned by a possible deluge of lawsuits schools could face if the law passes.
“What we’re doing is putting our school districts in a position where an attorney will take this statute and say, ‘You had an affirmative responsibility to identify this behavior. You failed to do it. Therefore, you’re liable for a failure that maybe no one recognized,’” Reick said.
But proponents of the bill said it would not change existing liabilities for schools and note that ISBE has expressed its support for the measure as well.
“By just listing some special at-risk factors, they’re not limiting other groups that may be at-risk and they’re not acknowledging any special obligation other than including the model policy that needs to be in there,” American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Illinois Co-chair Steve Moore said.
Moore also said it will take some time before Illinois collects the data to see how the pandemic and the realities of social distancing and lockdowns affected statewide suicide rates. However, Moore notes from a historical perspective, it’s not always a bleak picture.
“There’s been a lot of research even going back to the 1918 pandemic and the Great Depression showing that it’s not necessarily true that you’ll see a higher suicide rate when you have a pandemic or you have a depression — especially in the first year or so,” Moore said. “That’s a time when, to some extent, people come together and you see a little bit more of society kind of supporting each other.”