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The intended audience for this speech would be upper elementary, middle, high school, and college teachers and administrators. This topic is important because as students continue to face bullying, drugs, sexual identity crises, and familial stress, and the prevalence of mental illness and teen suicide rates continues to increase, we need adults in schools – where students spend most of their day – that are able to assist. Many times, school counselors are overwhelmed by their caseloads and don’t get to see students face-to-face on a daily basis the way that teachers do. By equipping teachers and administrators with the tools they need to spot and assist in a crisis, we can meet students where they are in their struggles and ensure they get the help and support they need before it’s too late.
48 million. That’s the amount of text messages exchanged between Crisis Text Line and texters in crisis since August of 2013. Out of all of these messages, 36 million were exchanged with texters under age 25. This service is reaching our youth where they are most comfortable communicating – by text message. How do I know this? Not only is this information available on Crisis Text Line’s data website, CrisisTrends.org, but I’ve also been a volunteer Crisis Counselor with the organization for nearly two years. Every week, I spend four or more hours supporting youth in crisis, and from mid-August until the end of June, the one issue that repeatedly comes up in conversations is stress about school. For some, the stress is so severe, on top of many other things going on in their lives, that they think the only way out is to end their life completely.
Research suggests that student suicide can be prevented when teachers and other school staff members notice the signs that a student might be suicidal and acts on these suspicions; and, when the appropriate support systems are in place at schools for students to seek needed help on their own.
When a teacher, administrator, or other school employee notices a change in a student’s behavior – such as being withdrawn, feeling hopeless, lack of good hygiene, and/or giving away prized possessions – they should tune in to this behavior and take appropriate actions to intervene if they believe the student is in crisis and/or suicidal. Additionally, a key factor in supporting these students is having mental health professionals – such as school counselors, psychologists, and/or social workers – in the school and working with students to promote and maintain good mental hygiene.
According to CrisisTrends.org, the website where the non-profit organization Crisis Text Line publishes their anonymized data on the people they serve, crises related to school problems affect students the most in New Jersey, California, Massachusetts, and Hawaii, respectively. While most people would assume that Monday would be the most stressful day for these K-12 students, evidence shows that school-related crises peak their highest on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, decrease only slightly on Thursdays, and unsurprisingly, continue to decrease through Friday, Saturday and Sunday (CrisisTrends.org, 2017). While these young people in crisis are texting the hotline about issues they are having at school, often times there are crises happening in their personal lives outside of school that may also cause them to experience their crisis within the school, such as through angry outbursts, emotional breakdowns, and even panic attacks.
CrisisTrends.org also tracks what time of the day that school-related crises seem to peak for students who are reaching out for help. According to their data, 10am across all states, in each respective time zone, sees the highest volume of youth reaching out for crisis support (CrisisTrends.org, 2017). As current teachers, future teachers, administrators, or school professionals, we must use this data to our advantage to assist students who might be experiencing severe emotional distress or thinking about harming themselves. We must also be aware that crises do not discriminate based on age. Just because you are a teacher of younger students, does not mean that these students are all safe. As the world continues to experience more and more pain and struggle, children are becoming affected at greater rates. At Crisis Text Line, self-harm (such as cutting oneself or hurting oneself in other ways that are not immediately lethal) is reported most frequently by texters who are thirteen years of age or younger (CrisisTrends.org), and the youngest act of suicide on record is that of then six year old Samantha Kuberski, a first-grader from Oregon (Reistad-Long, 2009). As a result of a study on the mental health of preschool children that took place in 2009, many psychiatrists believe that chronic depression can even effect children as young as three (Reistad-Long, 2009).
So, what should teachers and other school employees look for in a student who may be experiencing a crisis, and once one is identified, what steps should be taken to assist? According to psychologists and researchers at the Council for Exceptional Children, common warning signs are changes in behavior at school – such as aggression, withdrawal from participation, skipping classes, or performing poorly on academic work when the student has been otherwise successful in the past. Additionally, decline in the upkeep of hygiene, emotional outburst and breakdowns, panic attacks, or giving away large quantities of possessions such as clothes, pets, or expensive/sentimental goods are a sign that a student might be thinking about ending their life. Some students may also be more obvious in their emotions and speak candidly about death or planning to attempt suicide. Even if a student is not actively suicidal, they may still need assistance in dealing with their crises and may show signs such as scars from self-harm or possible parental abuse, serious depression, intense fears and phobias, or anxious behaviors (Obiakor, Mehring, & Schwenn, 1997).
[SHOW VISUAL AID] We are seeing that youth suicide rates are at an all time high, which is a startling trend. According to statistics measured in 2015 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of suicide for males between ages 15-19 was 14.2 suicides per 100,000 males. For women in the same age group, it was 5.1 suicides per 100,000 females. That equates to approximately 1,537 males and 524 between ages 15-19 who died by suicide in 2015. In comparison, approximately 1,289 males and 305 females in the same age group died by suicide in 1975 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017).
It’s important to remember that teachers and most other school staff, unless specifically educated and licensed to do so, are not mental health professionals or therapists and are not solely responsible for the mental health of all students. However, they are responsible for the welfare of students under their supervision during the school day, and should take actions to intervene if they believe a student is in danger physically or emotionally. Teachers who know or suspect that a student is in crisis or planning to attempt suicide should first approach the student directly, in private. If a student is showing signs that they may be planning to end their life, it is appropriate to ask them, “Are you thinking about suicide?” It is important to come from a place of concern and trust so that a student will feel comfortable opening up. If a student is actively attempting suicide and the situation is time-sensitive, it’s important to dial 911 immediately to call for first responders, as well as try to intervene to prevent any harm from happening. After making any time-sensitive interventions needed to ensure short-term safety for a student, teachers or school staff members should secure the assistance of qualified mental health and/or medical professionals (such as emergency responders/911, school nurses, school counselors or school psychologists) to take over assisting the student, as well as alert their immediate supervisor or administrator (The University of Texas at Austin, 2017). That leads me to my second point about the importance of having a support system for mental health in the school that is accessible to all students.
Counseling is expensive, and for many families and students, completely out of reach. Many students are uninsured, underinsured, or simply can’t afford the expensive copays and deductibles that can come along with seeing a therapist or even a primary care doctor to discuss mental health concerns. For people who can afford counseling, it may be out of reach due to scheduling issues – many therapists only provide services during the hours that students are at school and parents are at work. That’s why it is of the utmost importance that we have qualified mental health professionals working in schools that are able to assist students in crisis and give them a safe place to talk about the issues they are facing. Additionally, these professionals are able to offer assistance and training in child and adolescent mental health, crisis management, and intervention. A school nurse alone cannot be expected to take on all of these tasks, and assist students emotionally in addition to focusing on managing physical illness and injury. While school nurses can react in an emergency and provide support to mental health professionals, it is essential that schools have at least one full-time school counselor, social worker, or psychologist on staff. If it’s in the budget and the school has a large population, it is best to employ at least one mental health professional per 500 students . That is still an overreaching number that does not allow much time to get to know students one-on-one or allow much flexibility for students to see the counselor on a regular basis. Based on the needs of the student population, it is a good idea to employ as many qualified mental health professionals as is economically feasible. When the student-to-counselor ratio is lower, counselors have the opportunity to really get to know the students on their caseload, which decreases the rate of suicide in adolescents and young adults. Additionally, when youth know that there is an adult at school who truly knows them, notices them, and cares about them, they are more likely to have higher attendance rates and more academic success (American School Counselor Association, 2014).
In conclusion, we can see from the research and experts in the field that student suicide can be prevented when teachers and other school staff members notice the signs that a student might be suicidal and acts on these suspicions; and, when the appropriate support systems are in place at schools for students to seek needed help on their own. We can use data, such as that provided by CrisisTrends.org, to know that students may need the most support around the 10am hour on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. We can use that same data to know that students in New Jersey, California, Massachusetts and Hawaii would most benefit from having multiple mental health professionals at their disposal during the day. And, we can use what we know about the signs that someone may be in crisis or suicidal to properly intervene to save lives. While it is the school counselors, psychologists, and social workers that should ultimately be providing students with support for their crises, mental hygiene is not something that can or should be ignored by teachers, administrators, and other school staff. Mental health and the welfare of students are everyone’s business!
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