Op-Ed: Teen Suicide
Why aren't we talking about this more?
This is in response to a recent June 8, 2018 article in The Washington Post, Suicide: How schools should approach the subject with students. With the tragic deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, the topic of suicide is front and center in the national news. The logical question is, why hasn’t it been there all along? Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. In fact, there are twice as many suicides per year than there are homicides. In other words, we are more a danger to ourselves than others are. Why aren’t we talking about this more?
One of the most logical places for these conversations to happen is at school. Schools are supposed to be a safe haven. A place where children can go and feel protected physically. Why should we not offer a place where they can be afforded the same feeling mentally?
This is all very well and good in theory and one that I would advocate for, but with the way schools are currently set up this is very difficult to accomplish for a couple of reasons:
Teachers are already being asked to do more than they signed on for. Most teachers enter into the profession thinking their primary job is to teach children academics. But in my 20 plus years in education, I have seen a shift to school being responsible for life skills as well. Teaching kids manners, how to socially interact with others, and how to be socially responsible. Where before these skills were handled at home, a lot of schools and teachers have taken this on. A teacher has to be a counselor now, addressing the social and emotional needs of their students just as much as the academic. The problem is training. I am not saying teachers would not be willing to help students with their mental health. I think any teacher would gladly do so. What I am saying is do they have the proper training to do so. There is nothing more dangerous than an individual offering mental health advice when they do not know what they are doing. Teachers need to be better equipped if we are to help with this situation.
The model school district provided in the article is all well and good. The problem is that school counselors can no longer focus solely on the mental well-being of their student body. For example, the school system I am in has two high schools, each with 1600 plus students. There are 4 counselors in each of the schools. That means 1 counselor is responsible for the welfare of 400 plus students. How can they create relationships and get to all the students who need mental health services? Not only that, we now place other things on counselors’ plates such as standardized testing, scheduling, and college applications. There just is not enough time or resources at their disposal.
If schools really want to get serious about this, there needs to be an entire team of people specially trained for working with mental health issues. This is course costs money and the way schools work, when you provide money to one area, you take it from another. I am sure many would argue this would be money well spent, but the framework needs to be put into the school system.
What schools can do in the meantime is bring an awareness to the issue of suicide. Schools have taken on other big issues such as drug use, bullying, and texting while driving with pretty decent success. Sometimes just having an awareness can go a long way. An example of this would be teen pregnancy. Back in the 1950s, teen pregnancy was something that was not talked about. If a girl did become pregnant, she was carted off to a “special school” and not allowed to carry the baby to full gestation at their neighborhood school. People were not aware this was an issue. Then in the 1970s, it became more accepting of a teenage girl to get pregnant, still frowned upon, but not totally shunned. There became an awareness that this was happening rather than hiding it away. Since the 1950s, the birthrate of teens has dropped from 80 teens per 1000 to 22.3 teens per 1000 in 2015. There are other factors that figure into those statistics, but just being more aware of it helped teens to prevent it from happening.
I think a similar thing should happen with suicide. I think instead of sweeping a suicide under a rug and hoping it goes away; schools should be making students and teachers more aware so they can look for the signs and provide the support needed for prevention. We need to do this as a nation as well. It should not take the tragic deaths of two famous people to put this on the front page of the media. It should be talked about no matter who it happens to.