Although suicide is a topic many might prefer not to learn about, too often the unexpected death of a student becomes the catalyst for schools and districts to address suicide and learn how to prevent it. It doesn’t have to be that way. Investing time and effort into building an effective suicide prevention model is much better than waiting for a crisis to happen.
Determined to increase awareness and reduce the stigma, I published a book to teach educators how to address suicide prevention, A Culture of Caring: A Suicide Prevention Guide for Schools (K-12). I often write articles about youth suicide prevention and mental health to pass on information that will be helpful to school leaders, teachers, and mental health professionals.
When I went to Nebraska, I met school mental health professionals who wholeheartedly agree that investing time and effort into building an effective suicide prevention program is much better than experiencing a crisis and then trying to figure out what to do about it.
Why I Went to Nebraska
Two former educators, Kim Jacobson and Sally Carlson, work for the School Safety Division at the Nebraska Department of Education (NDE). While searching for presenters for the 2023 Nebraska Mental Health Conference who could talk about suicide prevention from an educator’s point of view, they came across my book. The book aligns with the suicide prevention work they are doing for the NDE, and they thought it might help their school districts develop effective prevention plans.
I looked at the NDE website to learn more about their program, and was impressed with the quality of the resources and information they provided. I gladly accepted their invitation to participate in the Nebraska Mental Health Conference and worked with them to order copies of the book to be distributed to conference attendees. I was pleased to see that after my presentation, many of the mental health professionals at the conference took sets of books back to their districts to use for book studies.
How State Education Agencies Address Suicide Prevention for Schools
Given the current youth mental health crisis and alarming increase in suicides, I wondered if other states were prioritizing mental health and suicide prevention. I did a search of School Safety Departments in nine different states with population numbers similar to Nebraska. Then I compared the content they posted on their education department websites about suicide prevention for schools.
What I found was disturbing but not too surprising. Many state education agencies tend to tiptoe around the topic and avoid talking explicitly about suicide prevention. Some don’t mention it at all. Take a look at the list below. Only a handful have addressed the topic with purpose and serious intent to provide support to schools.
Kansas has posted resources that include a Kansas Suicide and Prevention, Response and Postvention Toolkit. The contents of the toolkit are comprehensive and thorough. However, its 80 pages are quite dense and take time to digest. The page includes contact information for two mental health and counseling consultants.
Oklahoma’s suicide prevention page is limited to three links for lists of resources. There is no contact information for anyone in charge of suicide prevention, just a general email address.
Utah includes long lists of many resources, including the Model School District Policy on Suicide. However, that important document is included as a link under the Trevor Project, leading a reader to think it is only for LGBTQ students. Because the resource list is so extensive, it’s hard to decide where to start or what a reader might need. There is contact information for an education specialist.
Nevada - There is a listing for “Treatment for Suicidal Ideation, Self-Harm, and Suicide Attempts Among Youth” at the bottom of a School Wellness page. A search for suicide prevention takes the reader to a state government page for the Office of Suicide Prevention.
New Mexico - Nothing! There is no search option on the website. A scan of the Safe & Healthy Schools page did not reveal any mention of suicide prevention.
Idaho - Nothing! I found a link for a state tip line called “See, Tell, Now” where callers could report students exhibiting suspicious or threatening behavior. It seemed to be aimed at preventing school shootings, and did not mention suicide.
Iowa has a mental health page with links to information on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES), Resiliency, Suicide Prevention, and Trauma-Informed/Trauma Sensitive Schools. It includes a PDF document with guidance for protocols and training for suicide prevention and postvention, adverse childhood experiences identification and strategies to mitigate toxic stress response. It was posted in 2019 and has not been updated to include the 988 mental health emergency number. There is contact information for the person in charge.
Arkansas’s Student Support page briefly mentions suicide prevention. It lists the requirement for two hours of professional development every five years in the area of suicide awareness and prevention and includes several links for resources. There is contact information for a School Counseling Coordinator.
Mississippi provides links for mental health and suicide prevention training documents and resources along with a description of the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. The page includes contact information for the Director of Professional School Counseling and Support Services.
Nebraska’s website has a much more contemporary look to it, and resources are easy to find. It includes a Nebraska Handbook for Developing School District Suicide Prevention Policies and Procedures based on the Model School District Policy on Suicide Prevention published by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).
What I Learned in Nebraska
I learned that a few educators working for the NDE (Nebraska Department of Education) know a lot about suicide and how to prevent it. They have gone far beyond the average state education agencies in supporting schools, mental health professionals, students, and parents. In contrast to some of the other state education departments, the school safety staff in Nebraska are upfront and open about the topic. Take a look at the resources on their school safety website that are available to anyone in need of suicide prevention training, resources, or guides. The site includes contact information for all staff members on the team and a description of their roles. I found it to be user-friendly and easy to navigate.
In addition to resources for staff, and perhaps even more important, is the curriculum available for teaching students. Hazelden Lifelines Suicide Awareness and Responsiveness Program for Teens is a comprehensive whole-school approach to suicide prevention. The Hazelden Lifelines curriculum provides evidence-based lessons for elementary, middle, and high school, as well as training components for staff and parents. The NDE school safety team created PowerPoint guides for teachers to make the curriculum easy to implement.
What You Could Learn From Nebraska
My point in comparing the information posted by these states is not to rate or disparage them but rather to showcase how the Nebraska team has taken suicide prevention seriously. They’ve made information easily accessible to schools that want to improve their programs. Because educators learn from each other, their work is a model that leaders in other state education departments could emulate to support youth suicide prevention efforts in their states.
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.