Why suicide prevention must be top of mind
The number of kids at risk is alarming and continues to increase. The suicide rate among children and young adults in the U.S. ages 10 to 24 increased by 57% between 2007 and 2018. Suicide was the second-leading cause of death in 2020 among adolescents ages 10 to 14 and the third-leading cause of death for those ages 15 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Unintentional injury was the top cause of death for both age groups.)
Suicide rates have historically been higher among White youth than among youth from other racial and ethnic groups. But that’s changing, particularly as new research broadens the study of suicidal behavior in youth. Newer data show that students from historically marginalized racial and ethnic groups, as well as LQBTQ students, are generally at higher risk for suicide.
Among high school students, the rate of suicide attempts among American Indian and Alaska Native youth is at least double that of students from other racial and ethnic groups at 26%. They are followed by students who are of multiple races (13%), Black or African American (12%), Hispanic (9%), White (8%) and Asian (8%).
And The Trevor Project reports that among LGBTQ adolescents and young adults ages 13 to 24, 12% of White and Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) youth attempted suicide in the past year, compared to:
- 21% of Native/Indigenous youth
- 20% of Middle Eastern/North African youth
- 19% of Black youth
- 17% of youth with more than one race/ethnicity
- 16% of Latinx youth
The rate of attempted suicide for LGBTQ youth ages 13 to 17 (18%) was more than double that of young adults ages 18 to 24 (8%).
What are risk factors impacting youth suicide?
The isolation, family upheaval and other trauma caused by the pandemic have undoubtedly contributed to today’s high youth suicide rates. However, educators should be aware of other potential drivers.
First is the prevalence of social media, with its accompanying stress on kids to look or act a certain way. Whether they’re counting their own “likes” and coming up short, experiencing cyberbullying, or feeling left out of gatherings they see in their peers’ posts, social media can plant feelings of worthlessness in young minds.
Many schools aren’t equipped to provide the support they once did. Ongoing school staff shortages have led to a severely limited pool of qualified mental health professionals. The situation has also decimated the ranks of other staff members who typically play an informal "surveillance role" in kids’ lives and provide supportive and reliable relationships, such as bus drivers, cafeteria assistants, custodians and the school secretary.
In addition, schools have revamped their health room policies during COVID-19 as a safety precaution. That often means students can no longer retreat to that space or easily access a trained health professional who can recognize worrisome behavior.
What can educators to promote suicide prevention?
Being aware of the potential gaps in support and oversight during the school day can nudge educators to assume a more watchful role in assessing students who may be at risk. The CDC lists several risk factors that can lead to the increased potential for suicide, divided into four categories: individual, relationship, community and societal.
Educators should watch for signs that a particular student may be at risk. They should also be tuned to kids who might slip under the radar, such as students whose behavior tends to be more reserved. The American Psychological Association has other information on warning signs, including social withdrawal and sudden drops in grades.
In addition, educators can create a school and classroom environment that helps bolster what the CDC calls “protective factors” against suicide, which include problem-solving and coping skills and higher self-esteem.
Here are seven ideas that can help your school prioritize student mental health year-round:
- Make your school a bully-free zone with zero tolerance for name calling and other negative behaviors.
- Encourage kindness by using compliment jars and recognizing good deeds at assemblies or on hallway boards.
- Allow students to demonstrate their unique strengths and identities, such as through talent-sharing and using a culturally responsive curriculum.
- Deploy solid classroom management to eliminate a source of anxiety for kids who might find a chaotic environment to be provoking.
- Engage students daily by greeting them as they enter the classroom, so they know at least one person is looking out for them.
- Maintain open communication with parents and caregivers to share concerns and stay aware of what’s going on in students’ lives outside of school.
- Offer universal screening for mental health challenges to ensure students can access the care and support they need.
Finally, make sure these numbers are easily accessible to students, educators and caregivers to help potentially save a life.