National Suicide Prevention Month may be coming to a close, but the work is never over, especially with the added stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. This month we gathered tips from our collaborators as well as our partners at The Trevor Project, ASCA, National PTA, and AFSP, along with mental health professionals Richard Lieberman and Terri Erbacher. Read below to learn their tips on youth mental health and suicide prevention.
LGBTQ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their straight/cisgender peers. And The Trevor Project estimates that more than 1.8 million LGBTQ youth seriously consider suicide in the U.S. each year. Suicide is a public health crisis, but we also know that it is preventable—and we can all play a role in ending it.
The Trevor Project’s research has found that LGBTQ youth who report having at least one accepting adult were 40 percent less likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year. And according to our 2020 National Survey, LGBTQ youth with access to at least one LGBTQ-affirming space were significantly less likely to attempt suicide than those who do not have access to one.
That’s why it is imperative for school officials and educators to actively foster the creation of safe, affirming environments in which LGBTQ students can thrive. And to be that one accepting adult in an LGBTQ young person’s life, you do not need to be an expert on mental health or LGBTQ identities—you just have to listen, be affirming, and have empathy. For many, that person could be a teacher, coach, or school counselor.
And if you ever notice any warning signs of suicide in someone else, remember to
- Connect with that person.
- Ask directly about suicide.
- Respond with compassion and empathy.
- Empower them with information and support that may help them improve their situation.
2. ASCA – Jill Cook
School staff should recognize the potential for higher rates of certain adverse childhood experiences (ACES) and/or stressors during school closures and underreporting of those stressors that may put students at higher risk of trauma. These may include:
- Parental substance use and abuse
- Exposure to domestic violence
- Child maltreatment
- Homelessness (and general worsening of poverty and economic gaps)
- Financial/food/occupational/housing insecurity
- Mental health issues or exacerbation of underlying issues
- Family separation (some were away and couldn’t return, or not seeing loved ones)
- Grief/loss that could not be processed (either personal or affecting the entire school community)
-Jill Cook, Executive Director of the American School Counselor Association (ASCA)
3. Richard Lieberman
As schools struggle to reopen safely for students, it would be prudent for every district to establish a suicide prevention task force of dedicated, knowledgeable administrators and mental health personnel charged to reevaluate the district’s suicide prevention policies and procedures. Comprehensive school suicide prevention policies include prevention, intervention, and postvention components. They should address the needs of certain high-risk groups such as:
- Youth bereaved by suicide
- Youth with disabilities
- Youth with mental illness, such as depression or substance use disorder
- Youth experiencing homelessness or living in foster care
- LGBTQ youth
This task force could also be expanded to include community mental health, law enforcement, advocacy groups, and faith-based leaders as well. Everyone plays a role in suicide prevention!
-Richard Lieberman, School Psychologist/Suicide Prevention Consultant
Assessing Suicide Risk in a Virtual World
Suicide risk for youth has been rising over the last 20 years, and it is yet to be seen what impact COVID-19 will have on youth. As many schools have turned to virtual learning during this pandemic, school staff should understand how suicide warning signs may present during this time, such as a student suddenly not logging on to class or sending an email with messages of defeat. Students may turn in assignments that appear dark or contain writings about hopelessness.
Now more than ever, communication is integral. Procedures should be made explicit for school staff regarding how to report concerns immediately. Teachers should keep youth on the computer screen if warning signs become evident during an online class, and teachers should message the school mental health staff who can contact parents. And, training for mental health staff on telehealth and conducting suicide risk assessments virtually is integral, as these are new skills for most. With procedures in place, we can identify, assess, and intervene with youth who may be hurting—and perhaps save a life.
-Terri A. Erbacher, Ph.D.
5. National PTA
At National PTA, one of the biggest barriers we’ve found to parents and caretakers having mental health conversations with their children is just not knowing where to start. As a school, you can help families feel more comfortable having conversations about mental health—and suicide prevention specifically—by helping them become informed. Make sure they’re aware of all the mental health services your school provides and how to access them. Also, encourage families to not be afraid to talk about mental health, just as they would about physical health. Emphasize to parents and caretakers that they don’t have to be perfect, they just need to show their kids that it is perfectly okay—and good!—to focus on their mental health and to share when they need a little extra help.
Model healthy coping (and reaching out for help). Managing your own stress is vital to supporting those around you. Taking care of your own mental health will help to reinforce the messages that we can all take an active role in taking care of our mental health and that it is vital during times of change. Share with your family mindfulness activities or other things that work for you, and introduce students to videos, books, or other information to help them cope with their stress. Keep in contact with your support network, and encourage them to do the same with theirs. Reinforce the message that there is always help available (including professional help) if they feel they are not managing well and that help is available to the entire family.
If you need a template suicide prevention policy for your district, some of these collaborators and partners (ASCA, AFSP, The Trevor Project) have developed just that. This resource supports schools with specific, actionable steps to help protect the well-being of students. Check out the Model School District Policy for a comprehensive plan to implement your district’s suicide prevention policy.