In addition to planning for learning recovery as students return to in-person instruction, it is important to address the emotional toll that the pandemic has had on students. Boards can support strategies for emotional recovery and ensure that board policy on suicide prevention is current, meets legal requirements and sets a foundation for sound practice. Even before the pandemic, suicide ranked as the second leading cause of death for those ages 15 to 24. Experts worry that COVID-19 may have heightened the risk of suicide among youth due to increased social isolation, financial stress, lack of routine and fear and worry about the future. Early data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention back up the concern: mental health visits to the emergency room for children ages 5–11 and 12–17 increased approximately 24 percent and 31 percent respectively, from 2019 to 2020.
Research demonstrates the effectiveness of school-based awareness and skill-training interventions that address suicidality and underlying psychological and interpersonal problems, such as depression, substance abuse, family conflicts and peer victimization. A March 2021 narrative review of several studies found that these early interventions can address a wide range of risk and protective factors. Additionally, coping strategies and emotion-regulation skills were found to have improved with brief school-based interventions for suicidal youth.
Districts and county offices of education are required by law to have a policy in place that addresses suicide prevention, intervention and postvention (response in the aftermath of a suicide) for students in grades K-12. The law recognizes that suicide prevention is a collective effort and that stakeholder engagement is essential. In developing and revising policy and strategies, districts and COEs are obligated to consult with school and community stakeholders, school-employed mental health professionals, suicide prevention experts and for grades K-6, the county mental health plan. Such consultation may involve school administrators, school counselors, school psychologists, school social workers, school nurses, other staff, parents/guardians and caregivers, students, local health agencies, mental health professionals, community organizations, law enforcement, legal counsel and/or a risk manager or insurance carrier. Districts and COEs may also find collaboration with local governments useful to align their policies with any existing county, city and/or statewide suicide prevention plans.
Boards may want to consider creating a crisis intervention team consisting of administration, mental health staff, school security personnel and others to ensure the proper implementation and review of policy and compliance with law. The team may also provide oversight of mental health and suicide prevention training, collaborate with community mental health organizations, identify resources and organizations that provide evidence-based treatment, collaborate to build community response, and receive and act upon reports of a student’s suicidal intentions.
Teacher training regarding suicide awareness and prevention is required to be addressed in policy, and Education Code 49604 encourages the provision of suicide prevention training at least once to each middle, junior high and high school counselor. Boards and superintendents may expand such training to other staff and volunteers as appropriate.
Other important practices to address student’s mental and social-emotional health include:
- Instruction in problem-solving, coping and resiliency skills, as well as recognizing and responding to the warning signs of suicidal intent in others
- Methods for promoting a positive school climate that enhance students’ feelings of connectedness with the school and adults on campus
- Review of materials and resources used in awareness efforts to ensure they align with best practices for safe and effective messaging about suicide
- Provision of information to parents/guardians and caregivers regarding risk and protective factors, warning signs, severity of the problem, suicide prevention curriculum, suicide prevention policy and procedures, basic steps for helping suicidal youth, access to suicide prevention training, and school and/or community resources
- Encouragement for students to notify appropriate school personnel or other adults when they are experiencing thoughts of suicide, or suspect or have knowledge of another student’s suicidal intentions
- Crisis intervention procedures
- Counseling and other postvention strategies for helping in the aftermath of a student’s suicide
Since state law requires that board policy address the needs of students who are at high risk of suicide, it is important to ensure the representation of such groups when identifying stakeholders and to incorporate their needs when articulating best practices and procedures.
Districts and COEs are encouraged to review CSBA’s sample board policy and administrative regulation 5141.52 – Suicide Prevention, updated in June in collaboration with the California Department of Education, and BP 5141.5 – Mental Health. In addition, CDE offers an extensive list of resources to assist in the prevention, intervention and postvention of student suicide, and the Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission has prepared a suicide prevention plan for the state, Striving for Zero: California’s Strategic Plan for Suicide Prevention 2020–2025, which is available on its website.