Suicide prevention: 5 steps for better protecting our students

"We’re in a day and age where, at school, we provide the nurture, we provide the environment and we provide the academics," suicide prevention expert says.

Suicide prevention is one of the most fraught problems facing K12 leaders as schools grapple and students struggle with a mental health epidemic that exploded during the COVID era. The most effective solutions start long before a student begins thinking about committing self-harm, says Brandy Samuell, a former K12 administrator who is now director of product management at eLuma, a teletherapy provider.

Students who fall into crisis, including those who are now exhibiting unusually aggressive behaviors or skipping school, often lack “protective factors,” such as the ability to solve problems and build relationships, Samuell contends. Exacerbating these gaps are students’ dysfunctional home lives or responsibilities such as taking care of younger siblings or elderly relatives.

“Kids are coming to us lacking decision-making skills and coping strategies,” she adds. “They are faced with responsibilities beyond their level of development. They are coming to us with a lot more than they are developmentally able to cope with.”

Suicide prevention steps

Students who lack those coping skills are also more likely to engage in risky behaviors other than suicide and self-harm. Here are 5 steps that Samuell urges administrators to take to fortify their suicide prevention approach:

1. Creating a suicide prevention policy: It may sound obvious but it bears repeating. Districts need a clear and comprehensive suicide prevention policy that lays out professional development for educators and lays the groundwork for important school- and districtwide functions such as crisis-response teams. Here are some tips for creating a crisis response team.

2. “Gatekeeper” training for teachers and staff: As teachers are the most important part of the academic enterprise, they also play a key role in identifying warning signs of students who are in crisis. Administrators must provide training to ensure teachers and other staff are able to recognize when a student is at risk of harming themselves or others. “One-stop-shop assemblies, though powerful and dynamic, can do more harm than good,” Samuell asserts. “Rather, we should embed prevention activities into classrooms—in health, English, PE—so we have prevention going on across the board.”

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3. Use universal screeners: Assessments such as the DESSA screener allow educators to gauge students’ social and emotional competence and then provide the necessary tier of instruction. “It allows us to teach from K12 in a targetted manner, just like we teach to academic skills deficits,” Samuell explains. Counselors can also use the Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale to measure a student’s level of risk when they are talking about suicidal ideation or displaying suicidal behavior.

4. Strengthening school climate: Connectedness is the No. 1 factor when it comes to developing resiliency in students. Educators must help students feel confident that it is safe for them to raise concerns about bullying and other threats to their well-being. Students must also see that administrators and teachers are taking action when concerns are raised.

5. Technology’s role in suicide prevention: Administrators and their teams need to leverage all the data they collect on students to identify academic, social and behavioral risks more quickly and comprehensively. Virtual counseling and therapy can also augment in-person staff when districts and schools are shorthanded.

“We have to get away from educators’ coming into the building thinking ‘I’m not here to parent, I’m here to teach,'” Samuell concludes. “We’re in a day and age where, at school, we provide the nurture, we provide the environment and we provide the academics.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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