AUGUSTA — A bill that state Rep. Paul Gilbert has called the most important of his legislative career was signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Paul LePage.
The bill, LD 609, is aimed at increasing suicide awareness and prevention in the state's public schools by requiring training for all school employees.
LePage on Tuesday also pledged to cover the $44,000 cost of the training program with money from his contingency fund.
The bill sailed through the Legislature, winning unanimous support in both the House and Senate.
Gilbert, D-Jay, said Tuesday that believes the measure will save lives.
"This is wall-to-wall," Gilbert said. "Anybody who is receiving a check from the school system will have to get training in learning the signs of what a potential suicide looks like."
Gilbert said those individuals will be trained to report those signs to "gatekeepers" who can then take action to intervene and offer help.
The idea for the bill came from a counselor in one of the schools in Gilbert's district who lost a 17-year-old son several years ago to suicide, Gilbert said.
He also said the measure is meant to help lower Maine's overall youth suicide rate. On a per capita basis, the state has the 11th-highest teen suicide rate in the country, Gilbert said.
"We will never know who, or the number of people whose lives will be saved by this," Gilbert said. "But I think we will be able to measure it by seeing us move away from the top in this and closer to the bottom."
Gilbert said other states have similar programs but Maine is the first state to make the training mandatory for all school system staff.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among Mainers younger than 24 and Maine has the second-highest suicide rate in the nation, according to data distributed during hearings on the bill.
Studies also show that 13 percent of high school seniors in Maine have seriously contemplated suicide and nearly 8 percent attempt it.
Under the new law, suicide prevention training programs would start in all Maine high schools in 2014 and in elementary schools in 2016.
Several relatives and loved ones of suicide victims attended the ceremonial bill signing Tuesday.
Gilbert said those in attendance wanted the public to take note and that one of the biggest issues with suicide is too often the issue is not openly talked about or addressed.
"People want this in the open," Gilbert said. "For too many years, forever, we have been covering and not talking about suicide and if you don't talk about it and bring it out into the light, people feel they are all alone and are suffering."
After the bill-signing ceremony, LePage's staff issued a news release noting the governor's financial support of the new law and his support for the effort.
Prior to the ceremony, reporters on hand to cover the event were asked to leave the governor's cabinet room by his press secretary.