In its desire to do good, the Oregon Legislature sometimes ignores the cumulative weight of its actions and their potential unintended consequences. That is the case with a bill confronting dealing with one of the most important issues facing our community and state: youth suicide.
Senate Bill 485 is halfway through the legislative process, heading to the Oregon House after passing the Senate with minimal discussion on a 27-0 vote Tuesday afternoon.
It is a well-meaning bill focused on the aftermath of youth suicides. It would require the Oregon Health Authority to collaborate with schools, colleges and certain providers of youth services on communication plans after a suspected suicide of a person younger than age 25. The school or college the individual was attending, if any, would have to inform the Health Authority of what it was doing to provide support and to reduce the risk of contagion — other individuals being influenced toward suicidal behavior.
Those collaborations already occur but they are voluntary under a 2015 law, the first in the nation.
And that law is working. Suicide affects the entire community, not just family and friends, and Oregon has become a national leader in helping communities respond helpfully and appropriately when young people take their own lives.
But we are concerned that it would be counterproductive to turn a successful voluntary collaboration into a mandatory one.
Supporters of the bill say the collaboration has been uneven around the state. Yet the legislation establishes a mandate instead of addressing why some school districts do not participate. That mandate also creates an unintended incentive for public officials to focus their resources on meeting the legal paperwork requirement instead of serving the community's needs.
Every regulation imposed by the state carries a cost in school staff time and focus. The 2019 Legislature must be particularly wary because the Joint Committee on Student Success will propose a number of regulations, including many also aimed at increasing accountability. Legislators, who want collaboration by others, have a duty to collaborate themselves and prune the potential mandates, approving only the most effective ones.
Community understanding of suicide cannot be legislated. Neither can any law remove what remains of the societal stigma against mental illness. It is up to the community to do so, both individually and collectively.
Adolescence and young adulthood are difficult times. Young people face uncertainties and pressures around relationships, academics, family expectations and future careers, as well as sometimes dysfunctional family life and other obstacles.
Last month, the Senate Education Committee heard from parents who did not know their children were considering taking their lives until it happened. Their stories were heartbreaking and were powerful reminders that suicide can occur in any family, any neighborhood, any school.
As a community, we must help equip parents and other adults with the awareness, knowledge and understanding to talk openly and forthrightly with young people about mental health and suicide prevention.
On Tuesday, the Oregon Senate passed legislation requiring school districts to have comprehensive suicide-prevention plans. That Senate Bill 52 is long overdue. In contrast, SB 485 seems both unnecessary, overbearing and potentially counterproductive.
-- The Register-Guard