Could COVID be the cause?
You might have read about an increase in youth suicides since the pandemic began.
It’s heartbreaking. School district officials, educators, and mental health care professionals have good reason to be very worried.
The CDC reports that hospitals have seen a significant uptick in the number of children under 18 admitted for mental health emergencies in the past year. Suicide attempts have skyrocketed, more than double the numbers in 2019.
The causes of suicide are different and complicated, but why are we seeing so many within the past year? Are school closures and virtual learning to blame?
The trauma of COVID
It goes without saying that stress due to COVID must feel overwhelming to children. Older relatives are dying, parents have lost jobs, and families face not only food insecurity but also homelessness. The threat of catching the virus or losing more loved ones overshadows everything.
Part of the problem is likely a result of limited access to professional care for children. Those diagnosed with mental health conditions can’t see therapists. Many are struggling but have not been diagnosed or treated at all.
A larger issue is the loss of connectedness – with other students, friends and teammates, extended family, and caring adults. Teachers and counselors are not as accessible and see less of their students. If a student doesn’t show up for online classes, there isn’t much a teacher can do about it.
How schools are helping
You know that suicide can be prevented, but how? Some school districts are turning to software to help identify students who may be at risk for suicide. In Clark County, Nevada, software monitors online activity and alerts staff to at-risk student messaging or behavior. Others use school health software to track students with mental health conditions and provide support.
A district in San Antonio, Texas, has gone beyond searching for individual students who may be at risk. They have developed a model that supports student mental health district-wide. Counselors are assigned to each of its 30 schools. They don’t just offer career counseling but focus on social-emotional learning, K-12. Counselors provide regular instruction in classrooms, both virtual and in person. They document each lesson. They also meet with small groups and individual students and keep in touch with parents. Every interaction is recorded within the secure school health software system.
Why? Isn’t that an invasion of privacy? No. It’s mental health care.
Tracking mental and behavioral health for all students allows counselors and social workers to see the history of every student in the district. Not just recent events, but for the entire time the student is enrolled, K-12. If a student visits a counselor, their records are accessible with a couple of clicks.
If a student is known to be at-risk, details of recent and past incidents are on the screen. So is family history. Traumatic incidents in a child’s life affect behavior and mental health. That information guides decisions counselors make about how best to help students. All are trained in suicide prevention and risk assessment.
Counseling activities continue on a regular schedule for virtual and in-person instruction, making interactions with students more frequent than in most school districts. If a counselor can’t reach a student or a teacher reports concerns about online behavior or missing classes, the district social worker will make a home visit to check on the student’s welfare.
School districts that integrate mental health and social-emotional learning with the regular curriculum are focusing on the whole child. Students know that teachers and counselors care about them and pay attention to what is going on in their lives. Protective factors are in place that can significantly reduce the risk of suicide.
- Every school in the district intentionally creates a culture of caring
- Social-emotional learning is part of the curriculum, not a side dish
- Connectedness is maintained at every school
- Mental health professionals are essential personnel on all campuses
- Staff is trained in suicide prevention annually, not just once
- Connections between schools and their communities are resilient and endure over time
To learn more about how school leaders can prevent suicide, read A Culture of Caring: A Suicide Prevention Guide for Schools (K–12) or contact the author Theodora Schiro.
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.