The California Department of Education hosted its final webinar of the school year on suicide prevention May 25, spotlighting important resources and strategies for local educational agencies as they prepare for in-person instruction with youth who have been impacted by the pandemic.
Dr. Shashank Joshi, a professor of psychiatry, pediatrics and education at Stanford University, recommended the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) as an organization administrators and school staff can look to as they prepare for a full reopening in fall. CASEL has district resources on social-emotional learning, assessment and program guides and a roadmap to reopening schools.
“This year has taught administrators more than anyone that mental health is part of overall health and each of our school districts in the 58 [counties] has a job to do; it’s to get their students access to the curriculum and making sure students are healthy enough to learn,” Joshi said. “Now that we’re going to be returning in person … what are the ways we can continue to engage not only our young people but also parents?”
A few places educators can look for up-to-date and age-appropriate resources and tool kits are Each Mind Matters and HEARD Alliance, which published the K-12 Toolkit for Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention. Other organizations providing resources for mental health include the -nonprofit Bring Change to Mind, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and peer-to-peer suicide prevention program Hope Squad. Additionally, Mental Health First Aid’s youth program is available for free to districts through CDE. Those interested can email YMHFA@cde.ca.gov.
Joshi mentioned that while there are tools available for all grades, most focus on middle and high school.
“The messaging is developmentally tailored so the way that we talk about suicide prevention at an elementary site is based in social-emotional learning and connection and based on knowing yourself and your community and reaching out to trusted adults if you’re worried about yourself or a friend,” he said. These programs typically are adapted for younger kids, but the larger focus is usually on middle and high school because that’s where we see higher numbers of attempts.”
Youth-led mental health awareness clubs and programs like Butte County’s End the Silence forum can be effective for students as it gives them a place to express their feelings and find help if needed.
While he thinks the clubs are great, Joshi noted that they should be overseen by a faculty leader who is invested and there for the students, “because mental health clubs tend to draw from the youth who have their own experience either personally or from their family, or someone they know who has really struggled.”
“These are typically kids who have learned a lot through their own experience but don’t have training in how to manage when their friend is in crisis,” Joshi continued.
School-wide mental health campaigns, sometimes born from these clubs, can have positive effects as well.
Buy-in and messaging
Stan Collins, suicide prevention consultant and co-founder of Directing Change, addressed how to get buy-in from education stakeholders who worry that if suicide is talked about with students, they will imitate it.
“Getting buy-in is a key element,” Collins said. He said while suicide prevention education is mandated by the state, it is up to the district whether they simply check that box or create robust content around it. LEAs need to educate all stakeholders so they are not resisting from a place of fear.
Not talking about suicide doesn’t make it go away, Collins said, “it just makes people more hesitant to reach out for help.”
“When you’re talking about rolling out suicide prevention, part of it is a conversation that should happen with your school board,” he continued. Collins suggested board study sessions about suicide prevention programs, which often begin by focusing on solid mental and social-emotional health supports for all students.
Collins presented effective messaging in suicide prevention, including providing resources like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or a crisis text line. However, he noted that providing too many resources can be overwhelming. More information can be found here.
The suicide prevention webinar series is expected to return in the new academic year. Past sessions are available to view on CDE’s Facebook page.