Any teacher will tell you that before facing a test, it’s best to do the reading. Tragically, the issue of suicide is testing schools across the country – but by doing their homework and implementing a high-quality suicide prevention policy, America’s schools can make a difference in saving the lives of their students.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death amongst youth ages 10-19. LGBT youth are more than four times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to their peers. Up to 50 percent of all trans people have made a suicide attempt – many before the age of 25. The Trevor Project estimates that more than 1.8 million LGBTQ youth between the ages of 13 and 24 in the U.S. seriously consider suicide each year and could benefit from our services. However, LGBTQ youth are 40% less likely to report a suicide attempt if they also reported having one supportive adult in their lives. Adults, especially those who work with youth consistently, have the opportunity to greatly impact the lives of LGBTQ youth.
When a youth is in crisis, it is essential for the adults around them to be equipped to see the issue and respond appropriately, and for the young person to be able to access resources that provide them the care they need to feel supported and safe. The onus of this responsibility should not be placed on any individual adult, but rather should be a collective effort of the community to help protect our youth. School aged youth spend at least 1/3 of their day in schools, giving teachers, administrators, and other school staff the unique ability to provide a supportive environment.
To help support educators in this effort The Trevor Project, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the American School Counselor Association, and the National Association of School Psychologists created the Model School District Policy on Suicide Prevention. The model policy provides a framework for schools to ensure that they are addressing needs of students in the area of suicide prevention, helping them to see the signs and know how to react in the moment to potentially save lives. The model policy gives guidance on three major areas: Prevention, Intervention, and Postvention. The model policy also takes into consideration the special needs of youth known to be at higher risk, offers suggestions of implementation practices, and provides many other resources that outline best practices in youth suicide prevention.
The first key to reducing youth death by suicide is prevention. This includes providing a supportive environment, educating adults and youth about suicidal behaviors and warning signs, and ensuring that youth have ways of meeting their mental health needs. The model policy recommends district policy implementation, staff professional development, and youth suicide prevention programming, all of which help stakeholders to be able to recognize youth who may need assistance and get them the help they need.
Intervention is another critical component in any school suicide prevention policy. The model policy provides a guide for assessment and referral while keeping in mind that each school community’s resources will vary. Intervention practices are also informed by additional risk factors, such as youth living with mental or substance use disorders, youth engaged in self-harm, youth experiencing homelessness, American Indian/Alaskan Native ancestry, LGBTQ youth, youth bereaved by suicide, or youth living with medical conditions or disabilities. By specifically addressing these populations, educators are able to take into consideration the unique needs of these communities and more effectively provide the necessary resources.
Tragically, even with such preparations some school districts will still face the loss of a student or community member’s death by suicide. This scenario is any teacher or school administrator’s nightmare, and it is only made worse by trying to come up with an appropriate response in the moment of crisis. The model policy anticipates this need, providing a step by step postvention guide on how to appropriately handle this situation to avoid suicide contagion and to provide the best support to youth and adults in the school community.
Suicide is preventable, and if it is to be prevented, it cannot continue to be “unthinkable.” Schools have the opportunity through forethought and planning to provide a safe and supportive environment for all students. Having a school suicide prevention policy and adequate staff training are critical to making sure that all students are supported and that those at the greatest risk are recognized and receive the help they need. Remember, one supportive adult can make all the difference.
Sam Brinton is a member of Mental Health for US, a nonpartisan educational initiative focused on elevating mental health and addiction in policy conversations. The initiative is powered by a coalition of more than 65 stakeholder groups from around the country dedicated to uniting the American people to make systemic, long-term change with civic engagement tools and resources. For more information, visit www.mentalhealthforus.net.