Youth suicide is a sensitive subject that can be hard to talk about, especially for people with little mental health training. And if the educators in your schools are like others across the country, they wouldn’t consider themselves experts on mental health, much less suicide prevention. However, with the sobering statistic from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) that suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people ages 10–34, in addition to the profound impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health, it’s more important than ever for school administrators to implement suicide awareness and prevention strategies for students.
Current Trends & the Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic
The first stages of famed psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for human motivation involve physiological and safety needs. With the COVID-19 pandemic preventing or highly modifying the in-classroom experience, both students and teachers have missed out on the human development benefits of in-person education. Remote learning has also lessened the educators’ ability to observe body language in their students, which could otherwise alert them to indicators of mental health crises and thoughts of suicide. With the loss of the security of a safe learning environment and the support system of educators and counselors—in addition to the loss of loved ones due to the pandemic and other emotional trauma students may be experiencing—student mental health issues are on the rise as are, sadly, suicide rates. In fact, according to a poll conducted by Navigate360 and John Zogby Strategies, 56% of teens surveyed personally knew someone who had considered self-harm or suicide over the past six months, and only 32% had confidence that their school could effectively deal with the issue.
Where Do We Go From Here?
As we move into the post-COVID world and students and teachers return to the classroom, they may feel overwhelmed at the thought of having to catch up after what some consider a lost year of learning. And this only adds to their mental stress, as they may be grieving loved ones lost to COVID and coping with other profound changes caused by the pandemic. According to Dr. Scott Poland, a professor at the College of Psychology and director of the Suicide and Violence Prevention Office at Nova Southeastern University, it is imperative that school administrators balance academia with mental health learning. Doing so can provide the support that is needed to prevent student self-harm and suicide. Here are some strategies to consider:
Invest in Mental Health Training for Faculty
Suicide awareness and prevention programs should include all staff who interact with students. Set aside funding for mental health training for employees and consider hiring additional counselors or leveraging community resources such as mental health clinics. Faculty members with the proper training can improve their own mental health, as well as be more cognizant of student behavior and how to properly respond to warning signs of crisis or suicide ideation.
Suicide Ideation Warning Signs
Students who are at risk of self-harm and suicide can exhibit the following warning signs:
- Displaying extreme behavioral changes, such as violence
- Engaging in drug use, sexual promiscuity, and vandalism
- Acting overly distressed or panicky
- Giving away prized possessions
- Failing in academic performance
- Withdrawing from friends or peers
- Posting disturbing thoughts on social media and school-based platforms
- Referencing suicide, even if in a joking manner
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), factors that can contribute to these warning signs and thoughts of suicide include mental illness, child abuse or neglect, bullying, and a family history of suicide.
Establish a Support System for Students
Providing a support system for students is integral to preventing self-harm and suicide. This starts with direct teachings and open communication of mental health issues during the school day to foster trust and understanding. Outside of school, students may not get the support they need. In fact, only 36% of teens who participated in the most recent Navigate360 and John Zogby Strategies Poll responded that they knew how to report a threat of suicide or self-harm. Education about suicide hotlines or establishing an anonymous tip line students can use outside of the classroom to report symptoms of suicide in themselves or others can assure them that someone cares and will help.
The Importance of Talking Openly About Suicide
Encourage your educators to speak openly about suicide with students. While they may hesitate, citing their worry about making things worse or putting the idea of suicide in their students’ heads, open and candid communication can be greatly beneficial. Indeed, directly asking if a student is thinking about suicide can prove to them that someone cares enough to ask the question. Removing the stigma of talking about suicide can open the door for a student in crisis to get the help they need.
Follow Up on Students in Crisis
Once you have a suicide awareness and prevention program established within your school, it is important to stay informed of students who used the program to seek help. This includes following up with their case managers and providing additional support for the students’ mental health needs. Post-intervention measures include ensuring the student is ready to return to school and managing their ongoing check-ins with school counselors.
A Vital Mental Health Resource for School Administrators
To learn more about suicide prevention and awareness strategies for school administrators, download the Administrator’s Guide to Addressing and Preventing Suicide, authored by Navigate360’s subject-matter expert Dr. Crystal Ladwig and Dr. Scott Poland, an industry partner and expert.
If you or someone you know might be at risk of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline for additional information.