Supporting social-emotional learning (SEL) is a way for schools to create healthy environments for students and provide them with lifelong skills for successfully navigating life’s challenges. For Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, we’re sharing advice from Dr. Lori Vollandt in this 4-part series about how SEL is an important part of suicide prevention. Learn how the two in tandem can safeguard students from becoming vulnerable and at risk in the first place.
Dr. Vollandt is an education leadership expert with over 30 years experience in education and 15 years at the district level. She is currently the Coordinator of Health Education Programs for Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second largest school district in the nation.
There is an old parable about a fishing village, where each day, the fishermen had to rescue residents from nearly drowning in the river downstream. Knowing this was not sustainable, the fishermen decided that instead of rescuing victims, they would discover how villagers were falling into the river in the first place. They ventured upstream to discover a dangerous overlook on a cliff where people were losing their footing and falling into the river. After building a protective barrier and safeguarding the edge, the fisherman no longer had to rescue drowning victims.
For nearly 30 years, I have worked as an educator and later as a Coordinator of Health Education Programs for Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second largest school district in the nation. In that time, I've seen how educators and communities can form “protective barriers” to curb the devastating consequences of youth suicide. The idea of “upstreaming,” or identifying and mitigating the source of a crisis, has been the focus of my career as a teacher, advocate, and school district administrator. All too often, after a crisis occurs, the common question arises: “Why didn't someone do something?”
Promoting social-emotional learning is doing something. The objective of this article series is to explore how supporting social-emotional learning (SEL) can help schools create healthy environments for students and provide them with lifelong skills for successfully navigating life's challenges, including how to cope with suicidal ideation and self-harming behaviors. SEL initiatives, especially when provided in tandem with suicide prevention programs, can safeguard students from becoming vulnerable and at-risk in the first place. Applying “upstreaming” techniques like SEL is a foundational measure for protecting the safety of students and preventing youth suicide in school communities.
Youth suicide is a major public health issue that today's schools simply cannot ignore. Nationwide, within the timeframe of one year, 16% of high school students reported seriously considering suicide, 13% said they had made a plan to take their own life, and 8% of students reported actually making an attempt.(1) That means that over the course of one year, in the average high school of 500 students, 40 young people will actively try to end their lives by suicide. Even more tragically, since 2000, the rate of death by suicide has increased by 30% for boys age 15-19 and has doubled for girls the same age.(2) Within the timeframe of one year, 16% of high school students reported seriously considering suicide.
The reality is that suicide is preventable; and the more we understand about social-emotional learning, suicidal ideation online, and what actions have proven to be effective, the better we can be prepared to help our students and families.
How Are Schools Involved?
Schools have an essential role to play in preventing suicide, given that school sites are where youth spend a significant amount of time, and also considering a district's implicit responsibility to protect the welfare of its students. As a standard, school districts should have best practices and policies in place that identify clear roles and responsibilities in the event that a student is at risk. These policies should also include plans that address imminent danger, re-entry, and even a plan for responding to the aftermath of a death by suicide. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) provides a Model School District Policy on Suicide Prevention, an excellent resource for best practices and policies for suicide prevention in schools.
A Shift in Thinking
To help schools understand the interconnectedness of how factors outside the academic realm impact our students, a partnership was formed between the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). This partnership formed the basis of The Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC) model, which builds upon CDC's coordinated school health (CSH) approach and combines it with ASCD's Whole Child approach. The resulting Whole Child model, a collaboration between public health and education, was based on recognizing a student's physical and emotional health as absolutely integral to educational outcomes.
Most recently, LAUSD has worked to align ASCD's Whole Child model with the California Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS): a comprehensive framework that aligns academic, behavioral, and social-emotional learning in an integrated system of support to benefit all students. MTSS offers the potential to create systemic change in areas like social-emotional learning and suicide prevention through the intentional design of services necessary for all students' academic, behavioral, and social success.
School districts are also implementing federally-mandated wellness policies, which focus on mental health supports and help define effective strategies for addressing overall health and mental health issues.
The introduction of new wellness policies and the Whole Child approach to education point to an evolution happening across schools regarding their involvement in preventing youth suicide. ASCD's Whole Child approach is an effort to transition from a focus on narrowly defined academic achievement to one that promotes the long-term development and success of all children, which includes social-emotional learning and mental health. MTSS highlights social-emotional learning as an integral piece of serving the whole child, and school wellness policies help organize the supports that are highly important to ensuring students are ready to learn.
What Is SEL's Role in Suicide Prevention?
Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.(3)
The research on suicide prevention strongly recommends implementing universal approaches to supporting youth mental wellness before suicidal thoughts and behaviors can develop.(4) An increasingly popular way for schools to accomplish this is through social-emotional learning.
SEL provides a strong school-wide foundation for supporting student mental health and wellness. SEL is also an evidence-based, Tier 1 practice for the Response to Intervention(RTI), Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS), and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) approaches. By bringing together parallel processes across agencies that influence mental health, education, public health, research, and the community, SEL can act as a focal point for unifying language and efforts in support of student well-being.
Furthermore, the research and best-practice literature specifically highlights school-based social-emotional learning as an effective upstream approach to suicide prevention.(5) SEL teaches life skills shown to protect students from suicidal behaviors by increasing their social connections and improving their ability to cope with everyday challenges and stressors.
This segment is one part of a series on SEL and Suicide Prevention in Schools being released throughout Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.