September is Suicide Prevention Month. It’s also the month when most students head back to school for a new year of challenges. That makes this a fitting time to ask: Are we teaching our kids what they really need to know?
For all our worry about things such as Common Core, standardized tests and class sizes, a bigger concern should be how resilient our students are. How able are they to recognize and deal with their emotions? How capable are they of handling the stresses that will inevitably come their way, in school and out?
Late adolescence and young adulthood can be a tricky time. Brains are developing and more prone to risk, hormones are changing and affecting mood, bullying is often part of the environment, and the perspective that comes with experience has yet to be earned. This means troubles that an older person might be able to shrug off can seem insurmountable to the young.
Complicating the picture, many mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and substance use disorders, first present in adolescence, and these can dramatically boost suicide risk. In fact, a series of suicide studies determined that almost all of those who took their own life — 90% or more — had a mental disorder at the time of their death, and these often went undiagnosed or inadequately treated.
In those between ages 10 and 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death, the CDC reports, and even more young people attempt suicide than die from it. According to a nationwide survey, 16% of high school students said they’d seriously considered taking their own life in the previous year, 13% made a plan and 8% tried.
The Role of Schools in Safeguarding Kids’ Mental Health
Parents are, of course, the first and most important line of defense in helping youth recognize their emotional problems and develop the resilience to deal with them, but even the closest family can miss signs of struggle in a child determined to hide it. Schools, with their captive audience and consistent access, can become a vital supplement. They can also offer a way to help those kids whose parents are not only unlikely to be part of the solution but may, in fact, be contributing to the problem.
Some make the case that working with students on mental health issues and coping skills shouldn’t be part of a school system’s job description. Teachers are there to teach, not be social workers, the argument goes. But the reality is that helping kids strengthen their mental health not only translates to a greater likelihood of academic achievement, it also means the student is more likely to be able to put that learning to use. A perfect SAT score is useless, after all, if the student who gets it is too depressed to continue on to college or apply for a job — or if suicide has begun to seem like the only option.
Putting EMPATHY to Work
So what can be done to help? Some schools already provide mental health services, and where they exist they’ve been found to help decrease dropouts, risky behavior, delinquency, and drug and alcohol use, research shows. That helps all of us, students and society. But such programs vary from school to school.
One of the most encouraging programs — and one I’d love to see emulated across the U.S. — is EMPATHY, created by University of Alberta psychiatry professor Peter Silverstone in response to a rash of student suicides in Canada’s Red Deer School District.
Designed to diminish youth anxiety, depression and suicide, the pilot program was implemented at the school district in 2013 for students in grades six through 12. Within just three months, the district saw significant results across all schools and all grades: depression scores for the entire student body dropped by 15%, anxiety dropped by 11%, and the number of students who were actively suicidal dropped from 125 to 30.
The program began by screening all 3,000 students for mental health issues. Of those, 4% were identified as suicidal or at high risk of harm, and they received rapid intervention that included a resiliency coach, involvement of parents, and the option of an online program to help them deal with specific issues. Later, they were reassessed and referred to a specialist’s care if needed. Those who took advantage of the online training recorded even deeper drops in depression and anxiety — down 28% and 12% respectively.
Middle school students underwent a 16-week resiliency course that taught them skills for interacting with peers, dealing with daily stress, and combatting anxiety and low mood.
In a University of Alberta analysis of the program, middle school principal Mark Jones noted that EMPATHY was able to identify troubled students who hadn’t previously been on the radar. “What’s really important to me is students are recognizing they are not alone and that others are also dealing with many of the struggles associated with mental health and wellness. Because of the program, the students are implementing resiliency strategies that they’ve learned in the classroom. The transfer of these skills has had a positive impact on students’ daily lives and their ability to cope with issues that arise.”
Imagine the impact in the U.S. if every school implemented such a plan. Students would learn that mental health needs attention just as physical health does, that help is available and reaching out for it holds no shame, that emotions can be managed, and that others share their struggles. We might also make headway in getting back to what school is supposed to be about — not just helping students bring home straight A’s or get an acceptance letter to an impressive college, but learning the skills to create their best possible life, no matter the challenges.