Through the spring and summer of 2015, 12 students on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation committed suicide. Some were as young as 12 years old.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced it had awarded over $325,000 to help the school district recover via Project School Emergency Response to Violence (SERV) Grants. SERV grants typically assist communities that have experienced traumatic or violent events that disrupted learning environments.
According to the Department of Education, over 100 suicide attempts were made on the reservation during that 2014-15 school year alone. The federal Indian Health Service puts that number at 103.
And although the problem of teen suicide is especially prevalent on reservations, it's certainly not limited to those spaces alone.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that suicide is currently the second leading cause of death among persons aged 10 to 24 years old in the United States. Despite the numbers, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that just five states in the U.S. require educators to receive suicide prevention training.
Some legislators and nonprofits are trying to change that.
Educators can make a difference with early prevention
The CDC recommends early prevention as a primary means of helping young people avoid developing suicidal ideation. High school students in particular are also prone to a phenomenon called "suicide contagion," meaning that they’re likely to copycat behavior.
According to the recent statistics from the CDC, approximately 16% of high school students have reported considering suicide. Some 13% of those actually created a plan for execution, and 50% considering the idea later followed through within the next year.
But teachers and administrators can make a difference.
Parents often write off depression as simple teenage moodiness, a mistake that’s easy to make. Many teens who could use support don't get the treatment they need — especially young men, whose suicide rate is quadruple that of young women.
Educators can look for telltale signs including a student’s difficulty focusing and concentrating, restlessness, bouts of crying, irritability, or aggressive outbursts.
Risk factors that elevate a student’s potential toward suicide include previous attempts, depression or other mental illness, family history of suicide, alcohol or drug abuse, a stressful life event, and exposure to the suicidal behavior of peers.
When educators are concerned, they should reach out to a counselor or even the student’s parents, says the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC).
The SPRC recommends that if a teacher overhears a student talking about “wanting to die or to kill themselves, looking for a way to kill oneself, such as searching online or obtaining a gun, or talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live,” then the following three actions should be taken immediately.
- Supervise the student constantly (or make sure the student is in a secure environment supervised by caring adults) until he or she can be seen by the mental health contact.
- Escort the student to see the mental health contact.
- Provide any additional information to the mental health professional evaluating the student to help in the assessment process. That person will notify the student’s parents if necessary.
Further, the CDC reports that school “connectedness” — the belief that adults and peers in the school care about students as individuals, not just as learners — has been proven to contribute to the establishment of healthy behaviors and a reduction in suicidal thoughts and attempts.
Finally, to minimize the chances of suicide contagion, schools can also attempt to guide local media coverage around the event. Reporters can be encouraged to portray a death in a way that neither glamorizes nor romanticizes the act or victim. Vivid details and descriptions should also be avoided.
Mental illness detection and treatment
“Mental illness is the leading risk factor for suicide,” according to the American Psychological Association (APA), which reports that more than 90% of those who kill themselves have a pre-existing psychiatric disorder. In many cases, that condition is depression, which can be triggered by bullying or cyberbullying.
“The risk for suicide frequently occurs in combination with external circumstances that seem to overwhelm at-risk teens who are unable to cope with the challenges of adolescence because of predisposing vulnerabilities such as mental disorders,” the APA states.
For teens, other stressors can include disciplinary problems, interpersonal loss, family violence, sexual orientation, and physical or sexual abuse.
High schools that employ or contract licensed mental health professionals like social workers may have an advantage over those that do not. According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), “Mental health professionals are trained to help a person understand their feelings and can improve mental wellness and resiliency.”
School-based suicide screening programs can also help, as well as depression screenings.
Dr. Richard Wong, executive director of the American School Counselor Association, notes that school counselors are often the first people who identify students at risk.
Four organizations — the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the American School Counselor Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, and the Trevor Project — have also teamed up to release a Model School District Policy document on suicide prevention.
“With protocols in place we can help that individual student as well as support school personnel in creating safe schools,” Wong, who helped create the document, says.
The Model School District Policy, aimed at administrators, includes actionable steps for school personnel, sample language for student handbooks, suggestions for engaging parents and guardians in suicide prevention; and guidance for addressing in-school suicide attempts.
It also contains a host of resources and research for district leaders.
Additionally, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a free online toolkit for general use at high schools, also available for download online.
State laws slowly advance
In Pennsylvania, a new proposal signed into law last June requires schools to implement youth suicide awareness and prevention policies, and to also provide professional development on youth suicide awareness and prevention for educators serving grades 6-12.
Washington state has adopted a similar measure. There, two individual school districts — the Olympic Educational Service District and the North Kitsap School Board — have aggressively pursued suicide awareness solutions with community seminars and staff trainings.
And most recently, in the District of Columbia, the DC Council Committee on Education heard testimony corresponding to B21-361, the Youth Suicide Prevention and School Climate Survey Act of 2015. The resolution would require DC schools to create comprehensive policies to address suicide prevention, intervention, and “post-vention,” or follow-up care.
“Because of the amount of time they spend with young people each day, educators are in a prime position to notice when a student is in distress or despair,” said Nicole Gibson, director of state policy & grassroots advocacy for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, in her Oct. 27 testimony to the council.
"Teachers and other school personnel can help save young lives if they know how to recognize risk in youth," she continued. "And subsequently what to do once risk is identified."
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