During Mental Health Month, GoGuardian Beacon’s general manager, Elle Yan, hosted conversations with mental health experts on our Distance Learning Weekly webinar series. Dr. Jonathan Singer and Tracy Clements have joined us in this episode.
About the guests:
Dr. Jonathan Singer
Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Associate Professor at Loyola University Chicago, President of American Association of Suicidology (AAS), author, speaker, and podcast host.
Licensed Professional Counselor, Professional School Counselor, Director of Counseling Services at Neosho School District in Missouri.
Learn more about them and their expertise in the video below:
Highlights from this conversation:
Developing a Suicide Prevention Plan and Support for Staff
Elle: Tracy, Neosho School District in particular is quite, I would say, a leader in suicide prevention programs at your various schools. What are the key components of success? And then secondly, to what extent did you need to adapt your protocols and procedures now with distance learning?
Tracy: When we were developing our suicide prevention plan, it started with support from the upper administration and the school board. So that was key. And once we had their support, I began looking for resources; and believe it or not, my favorite resource I've found is Dr. Singer's book. So I developed our suicide prevention plan based on his book. Once we had the plan written, then we started training the various people. We had to train administrators, counselors, nurses, teachers. And then we've implemented an ongoing training each year for all school staff. Then we utilize signs of suicide for student suicide prevention training each year. So we had all of that in place, and we utilized Dr. Singer's suicide risk assessment resources, which are wonderful. And we have been able to...hit the high points with those through virtual learning. We utilize Beacon, and so we get Beacon alerts. And when we call and talk to a parent, we can do those risk assessments online, or we can do a Zoom meeting, or we can just do them over the phone. We've had to adapt a little, but overall, we're still basically using the same suicide plan, just in a little different way.
Dr. Singer: I think thinking outside the box, even when it comes to the school schedule, could be a really important way of helping support school staff, as well as administrators, to be able to do their job in an online environment.
Connections with student communities
Elle: How is Neosho helping right now to maintain connections between the schools, the parents, the children, while also protecting the mental health of teachers and staff?
Tracy: Most of our teachers are making contact with their students at least weekly. They're doing Zoom sessions and phone calls, and the counselors are reaching out to students they were working with before the shutdown. And they're maintaining those contacts either through video calls or telephone calls and emails. We're still making sure we're touching base with kids at least weekly. Our district office sends out updates that impact the whole district. So, good communication there.
Connection is the foundation of building resilience, and right now all of us need resilience. So connection is very important, not just for kids, but for adults and administrators. And if you're human, you need connection.
Trauma and its impact on communities
Elle: We've heard about concepts of secondary trauma, compassion, fatigue. How can teachers, staff, and parents help address this?
Dr. Singer: There's a third kind of trauma, which we call “shared trauma.” And I think this concept is particularly important right now, because a shared trauma is when the provider, the professional, is experiencing the same traumatic thing as the person that they're supposed to be providing services to…
We need to remember that we are sharing an experience. And when providers, when teachers, when mental health workers are able to acknowledge with the people that they're supposed to be helping—students, parents—that they are affected by it too, it actually improves the relationship. So, whereas we usually don't have teachers just sort of spilling about their days to their students. You don't have therapists who are like…“let me tell you what's going on.” That's just not appropriate. In what's going on today, it is actually appropriate to acknowledge what we are sharing, because it helps to build that sense of community.
Elle: I know Neosho has been utilizing trauma training. Can you speak a little bit to how you're bringing those principles to life with your school administrators and teachers?
Tracy: We did a district-wide basic training earlier in the year, which I'm so thankful that we had that done, because I've been able to remind them of those principles and...the basic impacts of trauma and how it impacts your sleep and your ability to focus and concentrate. And I'm asking them to acknowledge those things in themselves and manage their level of trauma and then help students. Because if they are still experiencing their own trauma to a certain degree, they're not much help for the students. So if they can manage it themselves and see what works, then they can basically give a testimonial to their students.
Distinction between mental health and mental illness
Tracy: We have been talking to people a lot about keeping themselves mentally healthy. There's a big difference between mental health and mental illness. And I think most people, when you say anything about mental health, automatically think mental illness. So we have been working with a district wellness coordinator…. We've been working together a lot and trying to group mental health in with physical health. There are things you can do to keep your body and your mind healthy…. We're trying to package the two together so that people can understand that health is not just physical health; it's mental and emotional health as well.
Positives of remote learning
Dr. Singer: I think we've seen a lot of positive aspects of remote learning. One of them is it started to debunk the myth that people can't be connected when they're online. We've seen with students, as well as with teachers and adults and other folks, that you can engage, you can listen to a lecture, you can watch a video, and you can have a simultaneous chat. And kids are really good at this, where if you prompt them and...let them know that you are interested in what are their reactions, what are their feedback, what are their questions? Instead of getting the same couple of kids that are extroverted...suddenly you get really interesting and in-depth conversation that happens between kids in an online environment.
Finding local resources around mental health
Dr. Singer: First of all, you can always call… you can text crisis text line, you can call the national suicide prevention lifeline. You can go to a place like auntbertha.com and search your zip code, and it'll give you a list of resources in your area. I think a lot of places have 311 set up where you can call to get information about resources. So there are lots of different ways that you can find that out. If you have insurance, look at the back of your insurance card, and call that 800 number or 888 number and say, “I need to talk to somebody.” What's true is that third-party payers would much rather have you be involved in online or telehealth than end up in a hospital. And that's always true, but it's definitely true right now.
Tracy: Most school districts maintain a list of local resources, and they will know more about the providers and what kind of services they provide.
How school administrators can support students
Tracy: I think one of the biggest things to remember is connection is the foundation of resilience. So administrators need to maintain connection with their teachers and encourage the teachers and school staff to maintain connection with the students and just be patient and supportive.... We’re making this up as we go.
Dr. Singer: See this as an opportunity to find what are the gaps. What are the things that have been in place that don't work online, or what are the things that have been in place that just didn't work for us really well in the first place? And now is an opportunity to make some changes. And this could very well be that you're a school, and the community looks to you to be everything, and you're not, and you can't be. And so maybe it's really shining a light on that right now…. When things open up again or when it's fall or winter, we have to say, “Look, we can't be everything for everybody.” And so where are the other places that we can build up our service system? What are the other systems that can address these issues? And to see this as an opportunity to get that information from teachers, from parents, from students—so that as administrators, you can have that kind of 10,000-foot view of what's happening so that the next time this goes on, it's better for everyone.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or feeling hopeless, please call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone now, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.