On June 5, 2015, my husband and I were sitting in a police car. The officer said, “I have some sad news to share. Your son Charles has been found dead this morning.” My chest burned, my ears filled with noise, and my mind was watery and unhinged as the unspeakable tragedy that forever changed our lives was delivered in a single sentence.
Moments later, my husband asked, “How did he die?” I was prepared to hear “overdose” since my son had been addicted to heroin. But instead, the officer said it was a suicide. The method left no question.
I am the mother of a child who killed himself. I spent the first two years after his death emotionally underwater but determined to become educated about suicide. That led to me selling my business to become a full-time speaker, author, and trainer on youth mental health and suicide prevention.
Charles was one of those bigger-than-life personalities, the younger of my two sons and the funniest, most popular kid in school. Yet he suffered from depression, and by 10th grade, he was misusing drugs and alcohol to numb feelings of suicide. I never knew about Charles’ suicidal thoughts, despite the number of mental health professionals we saw over the years. His substance misuse led to deeper depression and an addiction to heroin.
In 2019, four years after my son’s death and prior to the pandemic, nearly 20% of high school students reported having seriously considered suicide, while 10% admitted to having attempted it. We know that talking about suicide doesn’t “give someone the idea,” but instead it creates an environment where those struggling are more likely to ask for help. So, how do you create that environment in school?
Preventing Students From Getting to a Crisis Point
Crisis response always uses up valuable resources and time, and any effort to avoid that is a plus for a school administration. Therefore, having leadership committed to a suicide prevention culture is the key to making it happen.
I’m not referring to a single suicide prevention program but to a more systemic culture shift, which can be accomplished with several small shifts for surprisingly big results. These changes lead to fewer disciplinary problems, less self-harm, and less substance misuse. Even school shootings are rooted in youth mental health and well-being, making the steps outlined here even more critical.
We know that emotionally healthy kids perform better. That’s why Jennifer Hamilton, a school psychologist, and her team at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, MA, focus on this statement in supporting their students: “In order to achieve, you have to put wellness first.” This upstream commitment creates a culture that focuses on building resilience, so kids have the tools to manage adversity before they reach the edge. In Emotionally Naked: A Teacher’s Guide to Preventing Suicide and Recognizing Students at Risk, my co-author Kimberly H. McManama O’Brien, PhD, LICSW, and I highlight key areas for building a culture of emotional wellness and suicide prevention.
Connection and Belonging
Research has shown that increased feelings of school and peer connectedness are related to lower reports of suicidal thoughts and behaviors among students. And schools can offer something few other environments have: the opportunity for genuine human connection. This is the most valuable currency in the education system.
You can leverage that benefit to bolster a culture of student wellness and connection by increasing opportunities for students to learn more about their classmates and support each other. Here are some examples of how:
- Monday Mental Health Check-In: Chemistry teacher Sheila McElwee takes 10 minutes to ask each student to rate how they feel on a scale of 1–5. Once they’re comfortable with one another a few weeks in, students who rate themselves 1 or 2 (more hopeless) typically offer reasons for their low feelings. For example, one student shared that his mom’s cancer diagnosis accounted for his feelings of sadness. After these check-ins, McElwee’s students started supporting one another and inspiring a culture of connection and problem-solving.
- MASSP Student Mental Health Summit: Matt Alley, director of student services at the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals (MASSP), promotes student agency by holding an annual event where school leaders invite other school staff, as well as students. As a result, all members of the school community learn together how to improve school climate and culture for mental health and wellness.
- Anonymous School Survey: During back-to-school week, a principal at a North Carolina school surveyed students about how they felt returning to school after summer break. The students chose from the following responses: A. Excited; B. Anxious and Excited; C. Dreading it; and D. Not sure. Over 96% chose “A.” or “C.”—answers that reflected some level of anxiety. When teachers in advisory classes shared the results with students, they realized they weren’t alone, which sparked discussion on anxiety and how to cope with transitions.
Creating Opportunities for Students to Develop Healthy Coping Strategies
Underdeveloped coping skills are an issue for young people. We can attribute this in part to how the digital age has evolved at a much faster pace than our students can sometimes handle. However, we can help students stay safe and healthy online if we are intentional about teaching and incorporating social and emotional learning in our curricula. While separate SEL classes are important, embedding those opportunities to develop life skills throughout the school day offers more consistent and frequent exposure.
- Advice Column Activity: Leigh Rysko, a Spanish teacher at Shawnee Mission South High School in Overland Park, KS, includes a “Dear Abby” assignment in class. Rysko asks, “How many of you are stressed about something right now?” All students raise their hands. Then they write about their problem in Spanish, and list what they’ve already tried. The papers are coded for anonymity, so Rysko knows who to give the advice back to later. Then the papers are circulated so students can handwrite advice. In the wake of this activity, Rysko says students are more motivated to learn Spanish to express themselves and to think through solutions to a problem someone else is struggling with.
Promote Help-Seeking as a Sign of Courage
The simple act of posting resources throughout your school can show students where to turn if they need help. Are there posters on walls in your school with a crisis hotline? Do your students know whom to reach out to when they are struggling? Do you have a mental health resource table?
Collaboration Is Key
The healthy relationships your teachers and staff have established are a key ingredient for ensuring that a student is more likely to reach out when they are struggling or need to talk. Fostering a climate of trust is only possible through collaboration among staff, parents, and the student, as well as outside resources.
More than anything else, adolescents want to feel seen and heard. They need the life skills to work through challenges that come at them all at once like a swarm of angry hornets. By incorporating these strategies into your everyday teaching culture, you can help students handle whatever comes their way. Because it’s never a good idea to wait until your school loses a student to suicide to decide that suicide prevention is important.
Anne Moss Rogers is a mental health and suicide prevention speaker and co-author of Emotionally Naked: A Teacher’s Guide to Preventing Suicide and Recognizing Students at Risk. Learn more at annemossrogers.com.
Ivey-Stephenson A. Z., Demissie Z., Crosby A. E., Stone, D. M., Gaylor, E., Wilkins, N., … Brown, M. Suicidal ideation and behaviors among high school students—youth risk behavior survey, United States, 2019. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/su/su6901a6.htm
Marraccini, M. E., & Brier, Z.M.F. (2017). School connectedness and suicidal thoughts and behaviors: A systematic meta-analysis. School Psychology Quarterly, 32(1), 5–21. doi.org/10.1037/spq0000192