How school leaders shift suicide prevention to the virtual world

Teachers must redouble efforts to build relationships with their classes to spot warning signs, experts say
By: | October 13, 2020
(GettyImages/Chung Sin Lan)

Creating a suicide prevention task force is one of the most important steps school leaders can take to protect students who are contending with the added stresses posed by COVID and the racial justice movement.

Such a task force can focus solely on student mental health and wellbeing while other administrators and staff tackle online learning, potential quarantines and other challenges of the pandemic, says Rich Lieberman, a Nationally Certified School Psychologist lecturer in the Graduate School of Education at Loyola Marymount University.

“We look at suicide prevention through two lenses—one is a development lens: How are elementary kids different from teens?” says Lieberman, the former suicide prevention coordinator at Los Angeles USD. “The other is the cultural lens, and providing for the needs of students of color who are facing disproportionate impacts from COVID, who are on the other side of the digital divide.”

A task must focus on other high-risk groups, such as students in the LGBTQ+ community and those who have been treated previously for mental health problems.

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The task force can also spearhead initiatives that address anxiety and depression in school staff and parents.

The most recent data from the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey show that nearly 9% of high school students attempted suicide within a 12-month period while nearly 16% had made a plan for a suicide attempt.

Suicide prevention resources

Nearly 37% of students admitted to feeling sad or hopeless for two weeks in a row, says  Scott Poland, a professor at the College of Psychology at Nova Southeastern University in Florida and an expert on suicide and school violence.

Other research shows that only one in four students who attempted suicide seek help.

“States that survey middle school students are coming up with similarly alarming data,” Poland says. “The scope of this problem is quite pervasive and schools have a key role in partnering with community mental health providers, as well as parents, in trying to turn this around.”

Suicide prevention during online learning

Administrators can look to new legislation passed in many states that set standards for suicide prevention in schools, Poland says.

Some of these laws require schools to establish comprehensive suicide prevention and intervention programs while other laws mandate teacher and staff professional development.

This year, the challenge for many administrators has been adapting suicide prevention programs to the virtual space, particularly considering the number of students who have face difficulties connecting to online learning, Lieberman says.

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Teachers must redouble their efforts to build relationships with their classes to spot warning signs in things students might write on an online assignment that indicate frustration or hopelessness, Poland adds.

Finally, it’s critical that a suicide task force keep data on the effectiveness of a district’s prevention initiatives. Such information will also help administrators win grants for these programs.

“We have to talk about what works, and what doesn’t work and what we can we do better in the future,” Poland says.