The nation saw a decrease in suicide completion during Covid-19 school shutdowns and a resurgence of suicide rates as schools opened back up. We also see increased rates of suicide during school days and school months as compared to weekends and school breaks. As an educator, I am heartbroken to learn this. These statistics go against one of education’s most basic cornerstones: to keep kids safe and healthy. How do we support students who are so obviously struggling? How do we successfully build and operate suicide prevention programming? The Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) outlines steps that schools can follow to implement suicide prevention programming on their campus.
Fundamentals of Suicide Prevention Programming
Prevention programming needs to be done comprehensively. A team should be put together with relevant stakeholders such as school counselors, school administrators, district administrators, mental health professionals, school nurses, teachers, coaches, and/or members of departments where the programming will take place.
Understand the full scope of the issue: Look at data and research. Understanding the link between suicide rates and school is important during this initial investigation. Who is struggling with suicidal ideations? Use statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as local surveys and statistics such as the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System from the CDC, the Healthy Kids Survey (for California and Colorado), and local health department data. When analyzing the data, consider questions like these:
- What circumstances are surrounding suicide attempts and completions?
- What community and school resources are already in place to support your work?
- Where is there space for intervention?
As you do this research, identify risk and protective factors as well.
Set a goal: This goal should identify specific populations (e.g., age, grade) and situations or behaviors that the team wants to see a change in. Ideally, we would love to see a change in the whole school, but that may not be realistic. When and where will you have the availability to enact the prevention programming? Will it be done for each grade level within a homeroom or advisory? Or will it be included in the health class? What grade does the health class align with?
Then, figure out which protective factors or risk factors you want to focus on. Do you want to increase protective factors like help-seeking attitudes or promote positive social connections? Do you want to decrease risk factors such as isolation or the use and abuse of alcohol or drugs? What long-term goal do you want this program to address? Suicide does not have an immediate fix; time and consistency are needed to affect it positively.
Select or develop interventions: Your team can develop a program and activities to specifically fit your school or community. What is already being done? How does it work? How can you support and improve preexisting quality programming rather than reinventing the wheel? Your team can access a set curriculum that already has evidence of effectiveness found in the SPRC’s resource center.
As you design a program, remember to include the people who will be presenting the material to students. A strong working relationship between the people administering the programming (commonly teachers or coaches) and the counseling department and mental health support within the building is important. Counseling departments and mental health supports also work to help identify students who are struggling, intervene in crises, and support the student and family as they navigate through hardship.
ELEMENTS OF A comprehensive PROGRAM FOR SUICIDE PREVENTION
Identify and assist those at risk: Everyone can play a role in helping identify and assist those struggling. Learning about the warning signs of suicide is a great first step. Then, learn how to access the resources needed when you are worried about someone. Have students identify trusted adults in their life. Discuss why we cannot keep secrets about suicide. Work with your organization’s counselors and mental health professionals to figure out the best way to refer at-risk students.
Increase help-seeking behaviors: Studies show that decreasing stigma increases help-seeking behaviors. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, stigma reduction happens when we know the facts. Including facts and statistics about mental health and suicide in your lessons is a great way to counteract myths that promote stigma. Use inclusive and person-first language. Focus on the positive—people can and do recover. Mental health struggles are only one aspect of a person; everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. We can lead with grace.
Build out a continuity of care for those struggling, and ensure access to mental health care: Work with your counselors and mental health professionals to support students and build a consistent system to refer and support students.
Respond effectively to crises, and reduce access to means of suicide: Teachers and students alike can learn how to respond effectively to individuals in crisis. Important! You can help only if you are safe.
During a crisis situation, follow this procedure:
- Stay: Do not leave the person alone (stay on the phone if you’re not physically present).
- Call: Call 911 for a welfare check, call 988 for mental health service, and/or call a caregiver.
- Act: Remove the person from the vicinity of any means that could be used for suicide; take them to any emergency room.
Enhance life and resiliency skills and promote connectedness: Educate students about positive practices and healthy coping mechanisms. By building social and emotional skills, we can build a more supportive and understanding community. Not only will we be better able to manage our own life, but also we can better support those struggling with life, including mental health and grief. (Being close to someone who has completed suicide increases risk.)
Implementation, reflection, evaluation, adjustment: Plan implementation of the curriculum. When is this programming happening? Where will it take place? How will this curriculum roll out? How will those administering it be supported? Finally, use feedback and experience to improve. Plan how you will analyze and reflect on your programming as a comprehensive team. Was your programming effective, efficient, and delivered as intended? Assess both participant and instructor satisfaction. Psychological ownership benefits the curriculum and the students.
Suicide is preventable. Schools can play an important role in reducing its prevalence by investing in a comprehensive prevention team and program. A broad and inclusive prevention program helps identify and assist those at risk, increase help-seeking behaviors, identify resources, respond effectively to crises, enhance life skills and resiliency, and promote connectedness and support.