Sam Brinton (they/them) is Vice President of Advocacy and Government Affairs at The Trevor Project, the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ young people. As the Trevor Project’s chief advocacy officer, Sam ensures that the organization is advancing policies and positions that help LGBTQ youth in crisis on the federal, state and local level, and in the executive, legislative and judicial branches.In this two-part interview series, we talk with Sam about the work The Trevor Project is doing to support youth at risk of suicidal behavior, and learn about the Model School District Policy for Suicide Prevention, a resource that outlines best practices for K-12 school districts to prevent, assess the risk of, intervene in, and respond to youth suicidal behavior. Read the first part of our interview with Sam here.
What's the most common challenge you see educators or districts face when you work with them to implement the Model School District Policy for Suicide Prevention?
“Without a doubt, the greatest challenge is the idea of an unfunded mandate. The idea that I need to do all of this without the support to make it happen. When The Trevor Project works to implement laws requesting or requiring these types of policies in every school, we want to make sure there are financial resources that go along with it.
For example, there was a California bill that required policy, but not teacher training. The California state auditor did an audit of school suicide prevention policies and basically found what we always say — policy is helpful and it's good, but without teacher training and staff training, they don't know that the policy exists or what to do. What gets funded is what gets done.
Whether [your school is] urban or rural, large or small, you need to make sure that you have the resources available to make that training available — and to make sure that your PTA, school board, school staff, students, parents, the bus driver, the community member, etc., have bought into the idea that it's not just the job of the teacher. We have to make sure that this pressure doesn't rest only on a teacher who’s already doing so much to save the lives of young people each and every day.”
What’s another common hurdle or challenge to building a suicide prevention policy for schools or districts?“
I want to make sure that I address the idea of liability. The idea of, ‘If I think about it or talk about it, that puts me responsible for this death.’ Let's start off with a very clear, very clear statement: talking about suicide does not lead a young person to think about suicide. They want you to talk about it. This is not Voldemort. We have to bring it into the conversation. Liability is not about talking about it, and many of these policies do not place a school in any form of liability. In fact, what you're doing is preventing harm, which is kind of the whole mission, to ensure students can learn and grow. We need to make sure that the liability question is not something that would prevent us from saving lives. It isn't actually a problem, but we understand that due to a culture of concern, and a culture of careful, we have created the idea that if I think about this and say the words, I have potentially put myself at just as much risk as this other individual. It's just not true.”
How do you know that the Model School Policy is effective?
“Without actual research being done on the implementation of model school policies, we will never truly know how many lives they are saving, but it was created based on established best practices in suicide prevention, so we believe in its efficacy. We know that one supportive adult can reduce suicidal ideation by more than 40%, and by implementing this policy, you'll have more of those adults, because there will be more adults in the community who have been trained. We know that affirming spaces can halve the rate of suicide among LGBTQ people, and that creating an inclusive suicide prevention policy creates a potentially inclusive affirming space. Starting the implementation process of these policies is having the conversation. By just starting that conversation, it becomes a little less scary. Then we can at least have teachers go, ‘Oh, okay. So there are some things that I can do.’”
When the Model School Policy was developed, we hadn’t yet ventured into the challenges of the pandemic, which research shows is having a profound impact on mental health. What can educators expect to experience when more students return to school after the pandemic?“
We know that COVID has caused a variety of different experiences for a variety of individuals. Depending on your zip code, your socioeconomic status, your race, and your gender identity or sexual orientation — you experienced COVID differently. The one common factor is that it caused significant harm, which has not been able to be addressed because individuals have not been able to actually go to a therapist and maybe speak about it as easily, and their parents are currently still under the pressure. There is no pressure relief valve. Eventually, the school will become the pressure relief valve. If you do not have a policy in place, there is the potential for a very difficult school year supporting the mental health of young people. And this is not something that’s only going to be happening in high schools. These are young individuals who watched their world, all of their support structures potentially, become inaccessible. So when those structures become accessible again, they will be put under strain trying to recapture a year's worth of support.
When we return after a year unlike any other, we have to have at least the bare minimum of a process — the intervention — in place for every school. When we did research of schools that were implementing school suicide prevention policies, we found them in clusters around a death by suicide. We do not want to wait for the potential for increased suicidal ideation and attempts to be the catalyst for getting suicide prevention policies in place. It is important to recognize that the the rate of death by suicide during COVID has not increased in a way that the government has been able to measure. However, I can tell you that The Trevor Project is sometimes receiving more than twice our normal contact volume of crisis in the middle of COVID compared to pre-COVID times. So when students return to schools, what is it going to look like when it’s not calling The Trevor Project every night and instead talking to your favorite teacher, lunch lady, principal, or school guidance counselor? These are conversations we need to be prepared for and we do not have enough preparation. One-third of schools around the country have no mention of suicide prevention in their policies.”
What can educators do to better assess and support student mental health when teaching from afar?“
Acceptance and affirmation does not require a school building. Making sure that no matter what the student brings to you is heard and listened to is the first step in preventing suicide. For example, I, when I introduced myself, I said, ‘My name is Sam Brinton and my pronouns are they and them.’ This is something that I'll call the miracle of COVID, which has been that young people are getting to just display their pronouns on the screen and not have it be a question of debate. It's theirs. Supporting someone's pronouns can reduce suicidal ideation by more than half, so just using pronouns can save lives, folks. Additionally, creating space to say, ‘Hi, I am seeing that you're having a really hard time,’ to affirm and validate that everything isn’t suddenly better when you close your computer.
I'm a huge TikTok fan, and I'm watching kindergarten teachers help little kindergarteners talk about mental health and saying, ‘When we don't feel so good, these are some things we can do.’ That does not take a suicide prevention policy. I hope you have a policy in place, but if you don't, creating your classroom, whether virtual or in person, as an affirmative space will make [students] feel comfortable to come to you when they might be thinking about suicide [or] when they might not even be thinking about suicide, but they're in a crisis. Crisis takes many forms. And virtual teaching has created an access point to a very sacred space for very many people: their home.
Making sure that you are affirming that their reality is valid, what they’re experiencing — this pain, this suffering, this stress — is real. Protecting yourself. Self care is important. Do I have the resources? If I'm seeing someone is hurting, can I reach out to my school counselor or school psychologist and make sure that I am being supported as I have these conversations with young people? These are all things that educators can do.
It sounds silly that acceptance is a means of prevention, but without a doubt, it is. I know that for me, having my pronouns respected makes me want to listen to a person. So maybe it would also make me feel comfortable saying, ‘I'm having a really bad day. I don't know what to do.’ That conversation can prevent suicide by making sure that before they ever get to a moment of crisis, we've given them the resources and support that they need.”
How do educators account for their own mental health and wellness while building support systems for students?
“Working for a suicide prevention organization has given me the very clear realization that I cannot be a lifeguard to all if I do not have my own rest, my own time on the beach, my own place not being the lifeguard. That means that for teachers, as we return to a different kind of classroom, making sure that they are given the resources — including the time — and the physical resources.
I am a huge fan right now of outdoor meditation walks. That's not necessarily an experience that a teacher can have because maybe students are all around all the time, but finding a place, a space, and a time that can be scheduled as yours to refill those batteries, I think that's important. I think the way to make sure that you do it is actually scheduling it. You have to plan when you're going to get this kind of resource, because otherwise, it will not just magically appear.
It's not always easy to ask for resources. That's why the Model School Policy exists, because we wanted to give you a model, something that you could bring to decision-makers and not have all the pressure on you. Instead you could say, ‘Hey, all the experts are saying that this is a really important way for us to protect the mental health of our students. What are we doing about the mental health of our staff? It's not just the students who could be considering suicide. It's also the teacher—and what support systems do we have in place for them?’ That's why we have a model school policy, to try and make one thing on your checklist a little bit easier, but the checklist has to start with you. It has to be centered on your needs.”