September 28, 2023
By Sheena Lall, Director of Learning Innovation and Social Emotional Competency at Talent Development Secondary (TDS). LGPC, Ed.M Mental Health Counseling, MA Psychological Counseling, MST Secondary Education
The Scary Truth
In 2021, more than 40% of high school students reported feeling so sad or hopeless that they could not engage in their regular activities for at least two weeks during the previous year. Over 20% of teens reported having had serious suicidal thoughts. (CDC, 2023a)
Suicide rates among U.S. adolescents doubled from 2008 to 2018. (Annals of Pediatrics and Child Health, 2023)
There was a 36.6% increase in suicide for Black youth, ages 10-24 from 2018 to 2021; adolescent Black girls have the highest increase in suicide attempts between 2018 and 2021. (CDC, 2023b)
Over half (57%) of girls (up from 36% in 2011), 29% of boys, and 69% of LGBTQ+ students reported a persistent feeling of sadness or hopelessness in 2021; LGBTQ+ youth who report that their homes, schools, or communities are not accepting have higher rates of suicide attempts. (The Trevor Project, 2023)
Native American, American Indian, and Alaska Native youth living on reservations and in rural settings experience the highest suicide rates of any racial group in the United States. Suicide rates for Native American youth are four times higher than that of any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. (Implementation Science Communications, 2023)
What Can We Do?
These statistics are difficult to face when we consider the youth we encounter daily in our schools. Each one of these data points represents an actual walking, talking, young person in our lives. Our children need us. They need us to just listen to them, and accept them for who they are and where they are in life.
As humans, we desire to be seen, heard, and accepted. We want to know that we are enough. School connectedness has a long-lasting, protective impact for adolescents. Yet, In 2021, female students, students of color, LGBQ+ students, and students who had any same-sex partners were least likely to feel connected at school.
Student support systems can be an integral tool for identifying students in need of support and providing the connections children need. Using evidence-based predictive indicators like attendance, behavior, and coursework, and measures of well-being like agency, belonging, and connectedness, school teams can identify the exact students that we are talking about in these grim numbers. A supportive team of adults examining holistic, real-time, actionable data to identify root-causes and effective interventions that foster school connectedness can create the sense of belonging that could prevent a suicide.
Here are some other ways we can help students:
Consider the culture. For many people of color, there is a stigma to mental health that makes it a taboo topic. There is a long and valid history of medical mistrust in the African-American and Native-American cultures that should be considered when approaching families about mental health. Further, learning about the traditions of a culture could be helpful in broaching these topics with different populations.
Set politics aside. Our children are aware of the debates surrounding their identities, including attempts to banning books, and conversations about race. We should listen to how they are feeling and how they may be affected by these topics without imposing our opinions on them. Once again, our children need a safe space to just express themselves without being told what and how they should think.
Talk about it. Talk to students about what they see that bothers them. All too often, we witness young Black men and women killed by police on television. We routinely see school fights that are traumatic displays of violence. We read the news describing whole groups of identities being denied the dignity of recognition and respect. We hear reports of books being removed from libraries, school book orders rejected. Our children see this too. All these events tell many of our children that their lives do not matter in our society. We may downplay the effect that these events may have on the minds of our young ones. Ask them how they feel when they see or hear, or experience these realities, and listen to their responses.
Children are most likely to turn to a peer for support when feeling down. Even if you think your students are not in danger of suicidal ideation, talk to them, in an age-appropriate manner about resources, or find an adult they are connected to to have the conversation. If a friend ever comes to them, it will help for them to have already had a conversation with a supportive adult. Share 988, the number for the suicide hotline. Most of all, talk to your kids about feeling scared to tell an adult if a friend has suicidal ideation – make sure that they know their friends’ lives are more important than their friend being mad at them in the moment. It is a common misconception that talking about suicide will cause suicidal thoughts; in fact, studies show the exact opposite: education is a key part of prevention.
Look in the mirror. Do you struggle with some of the concepts that students bring to light? Gender fluidity, sexuality, and race are all things we have personal opinions on. It is okay for you to have your own thoughts about these topics, and these emotions can and should be addressed with other trusted adults. At the same time, it is not our place as educators to make a child feel wrong for how they are responding emotionally to what’s happening in their world, who they are and how they identify.
If we work together, we can make a difference in the lives of our students.
For more information on an approach to school-based health that has been shown to improve health behaviors and experiences, support mental health and reduce suicidality, check out What Works in Schools, from the CDC.