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.
Suicide Risk and Protective Factors
Research has identified Risk Factors that increase the risk of suicide for young people and Protective Factors that can buffer students from suicidal thoughts and behavior.(6) By targeting these Risk and Protective factors, SEL can be an effective public health approach to the crisis of youth suicide.(7)
Risk Factors are factors that have been shown to increase the likelihood that young people will have suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Research has demonstrated that SEL programs can reduce important suicide risk factors such as social isolation, or lack of social belonging, and impulsivity.(8) Teens who are impulsive, especially those who are prone to impulsive aggression, are at higher risk for suicide in part because an impulsive teen may be more likely to act quickly on suicidal thoughts.(9) A lack of coping skills for managing stress also increases teen risk for suicidal thoughts(10) and behaviors, and these coping skills are typically strengthened in SEL programs.
Well-implemented, evidence-based SEL programs also effectively increase self-control(11). Youth who have poor control of their emotions and behaviors are more likely to develop mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders that dramatically increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and actions.(12) Young people with less-developed self-control are also more vulnerable to suicide contagion effects.(13)
Protective Factors help buffer the effects of Risk Factors and directly protect youth from suicidal thoughts and behaviors.(14) SEL programs help reduce suicide risk by strengthening Protective Factors such as problem-solving, stress-coping skills, and conflict resolution skills.(15) SEL programs help young people learn to handle disputes in nonviolent ways, which also lowers suicide risk.(16) The risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors has been found to be decreased when students are better at communication, problem-solving, conflict resolution, help-seeking, and coping — all competencies specifically targeted by SEL programs.(17)
Prevention Through Social Connectedness
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified strengthening social connectedness as the focus of their National Strategy for Suicide Prevention, as substantial evidence supports the view that social connectedness reduces risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior.(18) The CDC defines connectedness as “the degree to which a person or group is socially close, interrelated, or shares resources with other persons or groups.” This points to the greater value of integrating SEL as an essential component to district suicide prevention programs, because one of the primary purposes of SEL programs is to increase close and supportive interpersonal relationships and social engagement. In sum, SEL programs in education can help decrease suicide risk by helping to foster school and community connectedness.(19)
How Has LAUSD Tackled Suicide Prevention?
Supporting Student Mental Health
One of the chief ways LAUSD has provided suicide prevention programs is through the district's long history of providing mental health services to students through social workers and school-based health clinics. It is important to note that schools nationwide have become the de facto sites for mental health services for children and youth. While only 20% of students who need mental health services receive them(20), 80% of those services are delivered at schools.(21)
Part of creating a safe and welcoming learning environment is ensuring that students in crisis have pathways to accessing help. Effective school mental health programs are founded upon the understanding that the responsibility for supporting student mental health and, in particular, suicide prevention efforts is shared by everyone in the school community. It is for this reason that LAUSD wrote a comprehensive and inclusive mental health and wellness policy, including a professional development plan for all employees, not just teachers.
Creating Effective Mental Health and Wellness Policies
In order to craft impactful and comprehensive mental health and wellness policies, LAUSD brought together a range of experts from within the district, as well as external experts from research universities, government agencies, and community-based organizations. The creation of LAUSD's Health and Wellness Policy and Suicide Prevention Policy was truly a whole-district effort to ensure policies, toolkits, and professional development met the diverse needs of students, families, staff, and the community. Part of what has made LAUSD's mental health policies successful is the fact that they were created with the understanding that no policy should be inherently static. Once a policy is written, it starts being reimagined almost instantly. LAUSD is constantly looking at research, listening to end users, and striving to keep the documents useful and current. Students show up to school with changing needs, so the resources and procedures need to be adaptable to those needs, while still meeting legal parameters.
One High School's Experience
To better understand the effect suicide can have on the greater school community and the resources required to prevent fallout after a crisis, the experience of one high school in Southern California is worth highlighting.
The school came back from the 2016 summer break to the news that one of their students had died by suicide. The immediate response was crisis counseling for students provided by the site social worker, academic counselors, and school site administrators. This cascaded into multiple referrals of students with suicidal ideation and the hospitalization of two students with non-fatal suicide attempts.
The entire academic year, the staff of the school was on high alert and hypervigilant in trying to anticipate and meet the needs of their students and staff. The exhaustion was visible on the faces of those tasked with finding solutions and supports for students and their families. The entire school community was under ongoing and extreme stress.
Best Practices from LAUSD
Best Practice #1: Creating a School Team
A team was assembled, led by the principal, to work on the upstreaming of effective programs and to provide opportunities for students and staff to actively participate in the planning and implementation of agreed-upon goals and activities.
The most urgent task was to address the crisis, followed by intervention, and then establishing a prevention plan. As the year progressed, prevention shifted into the top priority as the need for crisis intervention decreased.
Best Practice #2: Increasing School Connectedness and Student Support
The high school's data from the district's School Experience Survey revealed that student connectedness was one of the areas where the school scored lower than the district average. As a result, a team of school leaders and students united together with the goal of building a stronger and more compassionate school community where people took care of each other. This effort was rooted in aforementioned research that suicidal behavior can be reduced as students' sense of school connectedness is increased.(22)
Best Practice #3: Introducing Mindfulness Practices
School leaders decided to expand existing SEL efforts to intentionally focus on providing support for student mental health and well-being, in part by expanding the scope of SEL to include mindfulness practices. Mindfulness practices help students learn to be more aware of their thoughts and feelings, so that they are less likely to react to thoughts in negative or impulsive ways and they’re able to cope with stress and challenges. Learning mindfulness can help students improve their attention and focusing skills, increase their self-control, and reduce their anxiety.(23) Mindfulness practices can also help teachers strengthen relationships with students and create a more positive learning environment.(24)
The principal invited teachers and students to participate in mindfulness activities and the response was enthusiastic. Students reported that the 3-5 minute mindfulness practices helped reduce stress and that regular mindfulness practice helped them feel more peaceful and less isolated, while mitigating anxiety .
Best Practice #4: Student Involvement
The SEL subcommittee of the school site team is still very active and believes that student participation and involvement is key to the effectiveness of the school's suicide prevention efforts. A lead teacher and four students participated in a three-week retreat with Seeds for Peace, a program that equips youth and educators with the skills to lead in communities divided by conflict.
On September 26, 2016, at the same time that this high school was creating their suicide prevention plan, California's Model Youth Suicide Prevention Policy, Assembly Bill 2246, was approved. This California state law requires all Local Educational Agencies serving students in grades 7-12 to adopt a policy on student suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention.
California's Model Youth Suicide Prevention Policy was developed in consultation with school and community stakeholders, school mental health professionals, and suicide prevention experts. The law gave schools hard deadlines and specific goals to help shape clear school-based suicide prevention and intervention programs, and supported the efforts already underway at the LAUSD high school.
If you or someone you love 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.
This segment is one part of a series on SEL and Suicide Prevention in Schools being released throughout Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Read Part 3 of the series here.