His brother committed suicide. Now, he wants teachers to take courses in mental health.

April 16, 2019 Noah Goldberg
Anamul Haque, whose 18-year-old brother committed suicide in 2016, is trying to get a bill passed that would require teachers to take continuing education courses in mental health. Eagle photo by Noah Goldberg.
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Anamul Haque was 21 years old in 2016 when he found his little brother Ziaul dead in the bathroom of the family’s Flatbush home. Ziaul had committed suicide

Ziaul was only 18 years old at the time. He graduated with top honors from high school and got a full-ride scholarship to study computer science at New York University’s Brooklyn campus.

But something changed when he started college.

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“When he moved to NYU, he changed his attitude and started getting more depressed,” Haque said. His grades floundered, he stopped going to class and NYU took away his scholarship.

“Back then, I didn’t see them as warning signs or anything bigger. I thought, ‘This is a down point, he’ll go back up again.’”

With hindsight, Haque says, he could see his brother was showing signs of serious depression.

After Ziaul’s August 2016 suicide, Haque, who was about to complete his degree in electrical engineering, took a year off from school. He went and stayed with his uncle on Long Island, where he became suicidal. He blamed himself for his brother’s death.

“I felt like I had no point in life,” Haque said. “Like, how do you recover from this?”

He felt Ziaul’s death could have been prevented. That part upset him the most — how no one recognized or addressed his brother’s deteriorating mental health.

Ziaul Haque committed suicide in Aug. 2016 just after his freshman year at NYU. Photo courtesy of Anamul Haque.
Ziaul Haque committed suicide in August 2016, just after completing his freshman year at NYU. Photo courtesy of Anamul Haque.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 10 and 34 — after unintentional injuries — according to 2016 and 2017 data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC lists extreme mood swings, increased anger or rage, and expressions of hopelessness and isolation among suicidal warning signs.

Looking to help other young people considering suicide and searching for closure to a painful chapter of his own life, Haque is sharing his story in hopes of passing a bill that would require K-12 New York teachers to take continuing education courses on mental illness, eating disorders and behavioral health disorders.

The bill, sponsored by Assemblymember Marcos Crespo of the Bronx, did not make it out of committee in the Assembly in 2015 or 2017. This year, it’s back in committee again.

“I still think it’s a worthwhile idea. I still think its relevant,” Crespo told the Brooklyn Eagle. The Assembly bill has about a half-dozen co-sponsors, he said. “I think it’s fair to say that educators should have a basic understanding of mental health.”

The bill has no co-sponsor in the State Senate, however.

While the bill does not specifically focus on suicide prevention, Haque believes the more aware teachers are of mental health issues, the more likely they’ll be to spot students with issues, like Ziaul.

“The time they spend with students puts teachers in a unique and important position to notice changes in a student’s behavior and intervene early and appropriately,” said Matt Kudish, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness New York City branch.

“This training can start students on the path to receiving support and treatment earlier than they might otherwise, and early intervention around these issues is critically important,” he said.

Initially, Haque pushed for the Jason Flatt Act, which would require all teachers to take two hours of suicide awareness and prevention classes each year in order to be licensed by the state.

The act has been passed in 20 states throughout the country, with support from the states’ departments of education.

New York is not one of them.

Haque went to his local Brooklyn community board — Community Board 14 — to explain the Jason Flatt Act. He collected signatures at subway stations from residents who listened to his story and supported his goal.

“I want people to know me as someone who did something about this.” Anamul Haque

After compiling more than 200 signatures, Haque was able to set up a meeting with Assemblymember Mathylde Frontus’ chief of staff, who told him about Crespo’s bill already introduced in the Assembly.

“I do support it. I support teachers doing this continuing education, but I think that schools and school districts should have a robust effort to keep teachers and school personnel informed about mental health issues,” Frontus — who is not one of the bill’s co-sponsors — told the Eagle.

The state’s Education Department declined to take a position on the bill currently in the Assembly.

New York’s teachers are not currently required to take any continuing education courses related to mental health, a spokesperson for the Education Department confirmed.

“Educators play a critical role in the success of students, not just academically, but socially and emotionally as well. Knowing how to recognize the signs of crisis, emotional trauma and other related mental health issues is critical,” the Education Department said in a statement.

Suicide prevention is already on the table in Albany this year, with State Sen. Jessica Ramos passing a bill that seeks to establish a Latina suicide prevention task force. The bill passed in the Senate last Wednesday with a vote of 55-4.

Assemblymember Natalia Fernandez is sponsoring the bill in the Assembly.

And in 2017, Assemblymember Carmen de la Rosa introduced and passed a bill that established the Latina Adolescent Suicide Prevention Advisory Council, which also takes into account “other vulnerable populations.”

Haque, a Bangladeshi-born Brooklynite, is focused on teachers.

The state’s largest teacher’s union, New York State United Teachers, declined to take a stance on the bill.

One New York City teacher said educators are already spread too thin to take on more continuing education courses.

Daria McCloskey, who has taught in New York City public schools for 25 years, said that while she agrees that teachers should be aware of students’ mental health issues, she was afraid that teachers are going to be held accountable for student suicide.

Crespo said that wouldn’t happen. “It wasn’t our intention that they have any sort of liability,” he said.

Haque disagrees. He cited teachers’ role already as “mandated reporters” of child abuse under New York State law.

Under the law, teachers who fail to report child abuse can be charged with a misdemeanor. They can also be sued for any harm caused by their failure to report abuse.

“They are liable,” Haque said. “They are first responders to a crisis.”

McCloskey has had students in the past who committed suicide. “Our counselors and teachers are overwhelmed. Our natural instincts to care about kids are often ignored — or overburdened — tools, not classes, is what we need,” she said.

Instead of the continuing education courses in mental health, McCloskey believes there should be more “community schools” with their own health clinics. She also thinks that school counselors should be given assistants.

“Lessen the load on teachers in nonsense paperwork that teaches nothing and takes away from the relationships of students and teachers,” she said.

But Haque won’t back down. “It takes a lot of bravery for me. I’m taking the most vulnerable part of my life and putting it out there. I want people to know me as someone who did something about this.”

To Call for Help

Phone: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is staffed 24/7: 1-800-273-8255

Online: For warning signs, information for veterans, and local crisis centers: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org

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