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Youth Suicide Prevention: Are You Empowering Your Staff to Help?

As educators across the country begin this new school year, we’re returning to a school that, in many ways, looks foreign to us. Two years ago, we would have never envisioned the challenges we’ve faced in recent months. We would have never seen ourselves in the roles we have had to take throughout the pandemic. Educators have bravely and boldly done what was needed to keep students safe and teach them through new and innovative approaches. But that’s come at a cost.

Educators, their students, and their families have lost loved ones. They’ve feared for their lives. They’ve faced isolation, despair, anxiety, and loneliness. The results are alarming.

  • There was a 97% increase in mental health claims for 13-18-year-olds in 2020.
  • 61% of teens are now thinking more about their physical and social emotional safety. Less than half of teens believe their school is doing its best to create an atmosphere of physical and social emotional safety.
  • 48% of teens continue to say that they feel less connected to their friends than usual. Similarly, 40% feel more lonely than usual.
  • More than half of 11-17-year-olds reported having thoughts of suicide or self-harm.

Youth Suicide Prevention: The Challenges We Face

These changes in youth mental health leave schools with unique challenges as a new school year begins. Before the pandemic, we already knew about the students who required additional support to help them with their social, emotional, and mental health care. That number has now nearly doubled yet we continue to have limited resources and staff to meet their needs. Additionally, schools may expect an influx of students who struggle to transition back into school this year and the “new normal” to which we are returning.

Teachers will be on the front lines, tasked with helping students navigate these uncharted waters. Unfortunately, this will be part of a vast list teachers are tasked with without having received training to do so. Teacher education programs rarely include anything more than an introductory psychology course. Our behavior management courses focus on managing overt behaviors that cause disruption and detract from learning. We don’t enter the profession with training to help students cope with the trauma, learning loss, and mental health outcomes associated with COVID-19. And we certainly weren’t trained to help students with suicidal thoughts and plans.

What Can We Do to Prevent Youth Suicide?

So what can you do to prepare your staff to support students’ social, emotional, and mental health needs, particularly regarding the prevention of suicide? The first and most important step is to provide information. Provide training for your teachers to help them learn to identify myths vs. facts when talking about suicide prevention. For example, talking about suicide and asking someone if they have a plan to die by suicide will not increase the chances of someone doing it. In fact, the opposite is true. Talking about suicide and asking students specific questions about suicide reminds them that they are not alone and someone is there for them. Dispelling myths like these empowers teachers by helping them to cope with fears about talking with students about such a sensitive issue.

Second, we need to think about prevention. Yes, suicide can be prevented! A school-wide suicide prevention plan and resulting policies provide teachers and staff with the tools they need to support students. How will your students be taught healthy social, emotional, and mental health care skills? How will teachers be taught the warning signs and risk factors for suicide? Who will they report to if they have a student who is considering suicide?

Next, we need to think about intervention. Once a student is identified at-risk for suicide, what will your school staff do? How will your school reach out to that student, support that student, seek help for that student, and communicate with the student’s family? Some schools struggle with this step. Limited staff and resources lead some schools to simply offer to let students make up any work missed while they get help. But that’s not enough. Providing students with a one-and-done counseling session is not enough. Students considering suicide need ongoing support to learn from their experiences and make healthy choices. Providing a team of school leaders with the skills to help, support, and follow up with students can literally save a life.

Finally, we need to think about postvention. One of the biggest fears that many educators have following a suicide or suicide attempt is how to respond. If a student attempts suicide, we should clearly reach out to that student and their family. Depending on the context, it may also be appropriate to offer additional support to other students, too, particularly if they witnessed the attempt, are close to the student, or if the student’s survival is still in question.

If a student does die by suicide, a different type of postvention is needed. Suicide clusters are real. It’s important that educators and mental health personnel reach out to students to help them grieve, to help them process what happened, and to manage their thoughts and feelings in healthy ways.

How School-wide Suicide Prevention Programs Help

If you’re like most school leaders, you likely feel a bit overwhelmed at this point. That’s okay. Student suicide is a topic that no one wants to discuss but lives quite literally depend upon it. So how do school leaders like you help your school staff know how to prevent suicide, help students at-risk of suicide, and respond after a suicide or suicide attempt? The answer: create a school-wide suicide prevention plan. Comprehensive planning is critical to any school-wide suicide prevention initiative. Students, teachers, counselors, administrators, and other school staff need clear guidance on who to talk to and what actions will be taken when a student reaches out for help or is identified as a potential danger to themselves. Ultimately, students need to know that they will be cared for and supported and teachers need to know how to seek help for a student and how to respond to also care for their own mental health needs.

Notice that students are included in this plan. Students today, especially those in middle and high school, see things adults around them don’t. They will see symptoms of suicide like dark, negative posts on social media and bullying throughout the school day. Teach students to recognize these and other symptoms of suicide so they can seek help for themselves or others if they fear that someone is in danger.

Next Steps

Take the next step to preventing suicide in your school. Learn more with our free eBook called Preventing Suicide in Your Schools: Administrators’ Guide to Addressing and Preventing Suicide.

For additional information about Navigate360’s new comprehensive suicide awareness and prevention program, watch this series of Youth Suicide Awareness and Prevention Videos featuring our partner and well-known subject matter expert Dr. Scott Poland.

References: 

Dr. Crystal Ladwig is the director of research and content development for Navigate360, as well as a wife, mom and teacher with more than 20 years of experience serving students, families and teachers across the country. As a researcher, teacher and professor, Dr. Ladwig has a unique understanding of the issues facing teachers and families today. She has coordinated several research projects at the University of Florida. She specializes in working with children with significant challenging behaviors, autism and mental health issues, as well as children considered 2e (gifted + a disability), which includes one of her own children.

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