Across the country, school districts are providing mental health awareness and suicide prevention training for teachers and school personnel. Some are mandated or encouraged to do so by state law, others are motivated by recent incidents, and some introduce this kind of education because suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among youth aged 15-24.
Teacher and parent training are key components in any plan to address teen suicide. Increasingly, however, communities are recognizing that kids need to learn about mental health, too. Social and emotional learning across the lifespan reduces risk factors and promotes protection factors for violence, substance abuse, negative health outcomes, and suicide. One way to provide universal student training is by including a mental health component in the standard wellness or health curriculum. School districts and individual schools can implement individual, more targeted programs as well.
Knowing how to cope and developing resilience are at the core of mental health awareness and suicide prevention efforts being implemented in Massachusetts with children as young as elementary school. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts places a high value on suicide prevention, with dedicated line-item funding in the state budget for the Department of Public Health Suicide Prevention Program. With support from state officials, the DPH has launched suicide prevention programs across the state and for people across the lifespan.
Some of the skill-building and suicide prevention programs in Massachusetts schools are
- The PAX Good Behavior Game, which has been introduced by schools in collaboration with the DPH, teaches students self-regulation, self-control, and self-management in order to create an environment that is conducive to learning. (Ages 6-12)
- The Open Circle program, which strengthens students’ social and emotional learning skills to increase pro-social behaviors and reduce problem behaviors, is utilized by many school districts. (Grades K-5)
- Whyville utilizes problem-solving and other skills to help kids learn about their emotions in an online computer game. (Teens and pre-teens)
- SOS Signs of Suicide® focuses on prevention through education by teaching students to identify symptoms of depression, suicidality, and self-injury in themselves and their peers. (Grades 8-12)
- Break Free from Depression, developed by the Boston Children’s Hospital, focuses on increasing awareness about adolescent depression, how to recognize it, and how to get help. (High school)
There are dozens of programs that schools can use to promote skills development while fostering students’ mental health and their willingness to seek and accept help for mental health concerns. SAMHSA’s National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices and the Suicide Prevention Resource Center Best Practices Registry include searchable descriptions for a wide variety of educational programs. For high school students, the SAMHSA Preventing Suicide: A Toolkit for High Schools has a comprehensive list of programs, but a search of the NREPP and BPR may yield programs added since the Toolkit was published.
What can you do? Find out how your school district handles mental health training and emotional skill building for students. If there is not currently a program and there is no interest from school officials, you might work with the parent-teacher organization, local mental health groups, and the local board of public health to raise awareness of the issue, then advocate for implementation of one or more programs. There may be grants available to cover the cost of training or there may be organizations in your community that would help subsidize the program.
The bottom line is that suicide prevention requires a comprehensive approach. It’s never too early to start and everyone – families, schools, communities, and peers that create supportive environments; individuals who learn and leverage positive coping skills; and mental and public health systems that treat and prevent risk factors – plays a part.
- What do you think about the mental health awareness and/or suicide prevention programs that are provided to kids in your community?
- What role should a school have in developing kids’ emotional and social skills?
- What steps will you take to improve mental health awareness and suicide prevention in your local schools?
Editor’s Note: The Families for Depression Awareness Teen Depression Webinar is an accessible, free resource for training parents, teachers, and others who work with youth to recognize depression, talk about depression with parents and youth, and know what to do to help a young person struggling with depression. Register for the Teen Depression Webinar live with Dr. Michael Tsappis on September 30.
Thanks to the MA Department of Public Health Suicide Prevention Program and the Suicide Prevention Resource Center for their support in developing this post.
Photo is courtesy of Woodley Wonder Works’ Flickr Photostream, under Creative Commons licensing.