Suicide Prevention Disappointment in America’s Schools

Source: The National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth
Source: The National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth

Are there national or state laws requiring US schools to have policies and programs that address suicide prevention? 

To answer simply — no. There are no national laws, though national strategies have been discussed in the past. And at the state-level, only a handful of states actually require school districts to have policies or programs in place (with Washington, Maine and Connecticut being the most consistent). A mental illness such as depression, which can lead some individuals to take their own lives, is repeatedly stigmatized in our culture. Even at the institutional level, our country’s youth remain at risk. That risk is amplified when schools fail to prioritize the health and well-being of students.

Earlier this month, I participated in a webinar on “Model School District Policy on Suicide Prevention.” The webinar – hosted by The Trevor Project, National Association of School Psychologists, American School Counselor Association and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – was one of three webinars that introduced a newly-developed model, to be used for creating unique policies that meet the needs of a particular school district at the primary and secondary school level. Now available online, the “document will help educators and school administrators implement comprehensive suicide prevention policies in communities nationwide.” It also addresses some concerns that have been repeatedly raised in the media.

Vigil following shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012. | Source: Huffington Post
Vigil following shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012. | Source: Huffington Post

In response to my previous post on collegiate student-athletes, Kristine Mo. asked:

Also, is there a scientific consensus on how to address suicide contagion?

While I do not know of any specific scientific consensus, I would like to note that the model discusses how to prevent suicide contagion. While the model is geared toward primary and secondary education, it can certainly serve as a resource for higher education institutions as well. Recommendations at the school-level include creating a crisis team, working closely with teachers to identify high risk students, and promoting support services to those students. It’s crucial, however, that the crisis team is knowledgable of suicide warning signs, as well as up-to-date on reporting procedures for at-risk students.

I found the model presented to be quite comprehensive, or at least, the most comprehensive resource currently available on prevention policies and best practices. Furthermore, it discusses four key steps for suicide prevention and education:

  1. District policy implementation
  2. Staff professional development
  3. Youth suicide prevention programming
  4. Publication and distribution

From the webinar, I also learned some truly heartbreaking facts about what is and is not being done at the state-level to address suicide prevention. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention gathered and analyzed data on states throughout the country, and their findings revealed shocking truths about how suicide prevention is not a priority for a majority of US states.

Existence of school district policies/programs mandated by state law

Screen Shot 2014-02-27 at 1.34.30 AM
Source: Model School District Policy on Suicide Prevention

Only 4 states require a school policy/program
8 states encourage a school policy/program
4 states have a unique school prevention approach

Existence of suicide prevention training for school personnel

Screen Shot 2014-02-27 at 1.35.09 AM
Source: Model School District Policy on Suicide Prevention

Only 4 states require annual training
14 states require non-annual training
15 states encourage training

Suicide prevention education for students

Screen Shot 2014-02-27 at 1.35.30 AM
Source: Model School District Policy on Suicide Prevention

Only 8 states require student education
14 states encourage student education

There is a great lack of policies/programs, training for educators and staff – and most importantly – suicide prevention education for students across the country. It is no wonder that our nation views suicide as a taboo and unspeakable subject. If our country’s students are not being educated on something as important as self-care and well-being of their peers, who are we to expect them to view such aspects as necessary for living healthy lives (not just physically, but mentally as well) as adults? Clearly, more can and should be done to raise mental health of our students and future leaders.

Each of us has a responsibility to speak on behalf of our country’s youth. If you are a concerned parent or guardian, or an educator or staff member working with the school district in your community, I encourage you to be more proactive in your students’ lives. You can learn more about how to be an effective advocate for suicide prevention by checking out the references below. Additionally, you may contact me (through the comments section below or by clicking on the “Contact” tab in the header above) if you’d like to raise any questions, concerns, or would like to be put in contact with the organizations who created the “Model School District Policy on Suicide Prevention.”

Additional information: A single-page document highlighting important details about the model may be accessed here. The full policy document, which can be adopted by schools can be found here. Additionally, a recorded version of the webinar, as well as the PDF of the webinar slides, may also be accessed online.


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