5 ways to address suicidal thoughts during school closures

Remote suicide prevention efforts involve reinforcing coping skills and collaborating with families and community partners to support students at-risk for having suicidal thoughts.
By: | June 11, 2020
Photo by Sasha Freemind on UnsplashPhoto by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

If a student emails you or another school staff member to report that a friend is having suicidal thoughts during the school closure, would your district be able to timely and appropriately respond despite the pandemic?

Loudoun County (Va.) Public Schools intervened successfully with a student recently because monitoring software identified the plea for help and all protocols remained in place despite the outbreak.

“The protocols haven’t changed,” explains Benjamin Fernandez, a lead school psychologist at the district. “Collaborating remotely with our community partners has really solidified the work.”

As the pandemic continues, be aware of students who have had suicidal thoughts in the past or could be at risk for them now that they have been isolated inside for so much longer than anyone anticipated. Along with ensuring your monitoring software is functioning properly, ensure your best practices remain in place for connecting with students and reinforcing their skills.

“It’s the remoteness that makes this tricky,” Fernandez says. “We want to continue to promote that students have strengths to be resilient.”

Follow these tips to prevent and address student suicidal thoughts during school closure:

1. Uphold tiered interventions.

Students on your radar before the pandemic should continue to receive remote check-ins, counseling, and other supports despite school closures, Fernandez said. Recognize that if a student isn’t logging in or answering the phone when she should, this may be a sign she is struggling and needs more intensive support.

2. Promote and reinforce coping skills.

Loudoun has continued to engage students in the Sources of Strength suicide prevention program by regularly pushing out positive messaging and activities for remote connectedness, Fernandez says. They are meeting virtually once a week as a group to build, practice, and reinforce skills.

“We’ve even invited a couple of students to join who weren’t a part of it when at school,” he adds.

Part of the meeting involves an online game, such as Pictionary, then everyone shares what is going on and how they are doing at home. “We’ve talked about how family has helped them through this time,” he says. “They have talked about connecting with old friends. Even staff advisors have come and shared how they are connecting.”

Encourage students to nominate each other to complete healthy activity challenges, Fernandez suggests. For example, a student may challenge another to hike a certain distance.

Remind students that they are resilient and already have coping skills from before the pandemic that they can use at home during the school closure, Fernandez says. Such reminders may also help others in the family. “I’ve been working with one student with a history of depression,” he says. “The mom came on and thanked me for what I had been talking about with her daughter and said she is applying the ideas to the rest of the family and it’s been helpful to get through this stressful time.”

3. Connect families with resources.

Talk with parents and students about their concerns, Fernandez says. Loudoun school mental health teams, which include school psychologists, school social workers, and school counselors, are reaching out to families to offer guidance on community resources, such as private mental health providers who offer telehealth services. They are also finding out which families have financial hardships and are connecting them to community agencies that may be able to help.

Ensure your district offers mental health resources on its site for the continuity of education along with academic resources. This information should include any local, regional, and national hotlines families and friends can call if they have concerns that a student is considering suicide.

4. Collaborate with law enforcement.

Recognize that you can still run concerns by the local police department despite the outbreak if you suspect a student may be thinking of taking his life. Follow the same protocol you would when schools are open. “We are all working together to take care of the school community,” Fernandez says.

5.  Offer accommodations.

Recognize that some students who are overwhelmed may benefit from accommodations, such as a reduction in work they are expected to complete or extended time to finish assignments. Discussing these with teachers may help prevent a student who is struggling because of family financial hardship or illness from having self-injurious thoughts. Fernandez says, “We want to be supportive and not penalize them.”

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.

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