We’ve seen the checklists. We’ve done the training. Yet, we might still be missing signs that a student is in crisis or needs more support. While school counselors, school social workers, and school psychologists are often the go-to staff in a school helping students locate resources, we cannot forget that every caring adult is qualified to be a support to a student.
When students tell you something (whether in front of the whole class or in confidence), it’s important to understand that there’s a reason they are telling you. You may be the only adult they feel they can trust. They might be concerned that their family will worry about them. They might feel safer speaking about things with you than in other contexts.
Whatever the situation, realize that what we may once have thought was “just talk” or “attention-seeking behavior” is a plea for help. They have opened the door to invite you into their thoughts and feelings. Accept the invitation before the door closes (or slams shut) again.
Talking about mental health – from the day-to-day to the crisis situations – is a strength. Seeking attention is not a bad thing!
All student behavior is a form of communication. Sometimes it may tell us that a child is not getting enough to eat. Other times, it may show us that there’s more than meets the eye. Asking students questions like, “What can I help you with?” “What can we do right this minute to help you?” “Is there something you need right now?” are all invitations for students to be seen and heard, and demonstrates that you are an adult who is there to help.
Asking a student directly if they have thought of harming themselves or someone else gives the student an opportunity to communicate and receive help instead of acting out on their thoughts. While many adults may feel uncomfortable talking about suicide, it’s imperative that we do. Talking about suicide, suicidal ideation, and self-harm behaviors doesn’t cause those behaviors. It gives us a chance to get more information, locate resources, and make sure that the student has a team of people around them to support them through their challenges.
We all have mental health. Emotions exist. Thought patterns and habits exist. Trauma happens. But in addition to using our professional resources and training, our example is just as powerful of a teaching and learning tool. When things get stressful in the classroom, model taking a moment for yourself. Explain what you are doing. Model vulnerability and two-way communication. Admitting that adults have emotions and challenges (the students don’t need the details) helps give our students permission to feel and to talk about their feelings, even when their feelings might seem scary or out of control.
Dig into the good stuff.
The DPI has developed and continues to relaunch and revise all of our suicide prevention resources to keep up with the latest understanding and best practices in suicide prevention. Andrea Donegan, School Counseling Consultant at the DPI, points to a number of resources that are either available now or later this fall to all educators:
- Revision and updates to the suicide prevention curriculum for upper elementary, middle, and high schools (coming soon!)
- Youth Mental Health First Aid trainings (WISH Center)
- Peer to peer suicide prevention grants (open for high schools to apply for)
- Modules on suicide post-vention and policies (coming soon!)
The upshot is: when in doubt, support. Do something. Take action, provide connection and support, and also seek support yourself amongst your colleagues and your leadership. You deserve the same support you provide for others.