Growing up is challenging for teens – do you remember what it was like when you were that age? News stories amplify the sorrows of the world because drama, pain, and suffering sell better than positive stories, but it makes it seem that danger lurks around every corner. Social media leads teens to compare themselves to others, and they worry that they’ll never be good enough. Teenagers might not be aware of the political conflicts that pit adults against each other, but they do know about climate change and fear for their futures, unable to escape the foreboding messages of imminent doom. And they are very aware of gun violence, concerned that their school could be the next one under attack.
The youth mental health crisis we are experiencing shouldn’t come as a surprise. Suicide rates are rising. Schools try hard to meet the needs of all students while parents are told they should not trust teachers to do what's best for their children. Teachers and school counselors must balance the choices they make about supporting struggling students with concerns that parents will report them for violating the plethora of anti-education laws spewing from legislatures around the country.
Some children may escape unscathed, able to engage comfortably with their families and friends, believing they will make their way successfully and achieve their goals for the future. Others face far greater challenges just surviving each day. Consider the bashing anyone who doesn’t conform to the usual gender expectations is taking right now. If you know teens who are LGBTQ, please try walking in their shoes for a while. Learn about how they perceive the world around them. Those students are being ostracized and attacked simply for being themselves.
State legislatures have introduced a number of bills specifically targeting LGBTQ students. By restricting access to books about LGBTQ topics, legislators are announcing that those students are not worthy of acknowledgment. How painful that must feel to them.
If you are a typical educator, you love kids. That’s why you chose a profession in education. You care about your students no matter who they are, where they came from, or what their family history is. You want to teach them what they need to know to be successful in the future. In spite of today’s challenges, you are in a position to help.
What can schools do?
Schools that focus on maintaining a positive learning environment no matter what is going on in the outside world can create a culture of caring where every child feels safe, valued, and connected. Now is a time when they need to try even harder to notice and address the overwhelming challenges faced by LGBTQ youth.
First, look at the data that explains some of those challenges. A recent report published by The Trevor Project identifies reasons why suicidal ideation is so high among LGBTQ students. Many cannot access the mental health care that could mean the difference between life and death. Barriers range from parental permission requirements to fear of discussing mental health concerns or believing they would not be taken seriously.
The Trevor Project also found that students attending schools where LGBTQ youth feel accepted and supported will experience better mental health outcomes and fewer suicide attempts. In a positive school culture, mental health programs and services may be more accessible.
Schools need to develop suicide prevention policies that address the challenges faced by marginalized students. Effective policies require educating teachers and parents about LGBTQ identities and mental health. Anti-LGBTQ bullying and harassment policies must be clear and consistently enforced.
Given that most schools are facing a critical shortage of mental health professionals during the ongoing youth mental health crisis, maintaining a positive school culture may be one of the best ways schools can help.
Experts recommend that schools review and revise current policies and practices in middle and high schools to increase support for LGBTQ students.
- Talk to students about what they need instead of assuming what they need by conducting focus groups or surveys to hear what would make them feel physically and psychologically safe and able to learn.
- Expand mental health counseling and extracurricular activities like Gender and Sexuality Alliances (GSAs).
- Implement suicide prevention policies and mental health services that specifically consider the unique stressors and challenges students with multiple marginalized identities face.
- Implement transgender-inclusive policies, such as access to sports and gender-inclusive bathrooms, inclusion in health curricula, and the ability to change one’s name and gender marker in school systems and documents.
- Educate teachers and parents about LGBTQ identities and mental health and suicide prevention.
- Implement zero-tolerance policies for anti-LGBTQ bullying and harassment.
Now that you know what to do, please take action. Meet with school officials to share your concerns. Review and assess policies and practices at your school and take steps to strengthen support for all LGBTQ students. You could save a life.
Image: Teen boy
Attribution: © virtosmedia, 123RF Free Images
A Culture of Caring: A Suicide Prevention Guide for Schools (K-12) was created as a resource for educators who want to know how to get started and what steps to take to create a suicide prevention plan that will work for their schools and districts. It is written from my perspective as a school principal and survivor of suicide loss, not an expert in psychology or counseling. I hope that any teacher, school counselor, psychologist, principal, or district administrator can pick up this book, flip to a chapter, and easily find helpful answers to the questions they are likely to have about what schools can do to prevent suicide.