Prior to the pandemic, suicide and self-harm among teens and youth was already increasing at an alarming rate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide rates among youths aged 14–18 years increased by 61.7% from 2009–2018.
The COVID crisis has accelerated this tragic trend. A new CDC report found that youth suicide rates have skyrocketed since the beginning of the pandemic. The report states that emergency room visits for suicide attempts were up among adolescents aged 12–17 years by 22.3% in summer 2020. By wintertime, that number had grown to 39.1% compared to the same time periods in 2019. Alarmingly, ER visits for suspected suicide attempts were 50.6% higher among females compared to the corresponding period in 2019.
From the report, “Young persons might represent a group at high risk because they might have been particularly affected by mitigation measures, such as physical distancing (including a lack of connectedness to schools, teachers, and peers); barriers to mental health treatment; increases in substance use; and anxiety about family health and economic problems, which are all risk factors for suicide.”
Social isolation and quarantine practice also means missing out on important milestone events such as graduations, musical and theater performances, sporting events, school dances, and more. These opportunities for peer-focused connection are important to adolescent development. Experiencing these milestones help youth develop the social emotional skills that prepare them for the independence of pending adulthood. The loss of important shared experiences has taken a high toll on the mental health of everyone, but for our youth the cost is especially high.
In the face of the many challenges that we are all experiencing, information like the numbers in the CDC report can feel overwhelming. It’s easy to lose hope. That is why it is important to remember a basic truth: teen suicide is a preventable tragedy.
A DISEASE WITH A CURE.
The CDC has studied youth suicide extensively in recent years, devoting resources to understanding the complex factors involved in youth suicide and identifying solutions. Through guides and reports published for educators and parents, the CDC has outlined its solution.
In a word, the way to reduce teen suicide as well as violence, self harm, and bullying is: Connectedness.
WHAT IS CONNECTEDNESS?
According to the CDC, connectedness is a protective factor for preventing suicidal behavior. They define connectedness as “the degree to which a person or group is socially close, interrelated, or shares resources with other persons or groups.” In a later report, they identify the need for both adults and students to be active participants. School connectedness is described as,, “the belief by students that adults in the school care about their learning as well as about them as individuals ” The findings go on to say, “Because studies indicate that individual students’ feelings of being connected to school are influenced by their peers as well as by adults, this publication has expanded that definition to include peer influence.”
Simply put, when students feel connected to their peers and believe the adults in the school care about them as individuals, the prevalence of youth suicide decreases.
WHY DOES CONNECTEDNESS MATTER?
Students who feel connected to their school are not only less likely to experience suicidal behaviors, they’re more likely to have better academic achievement, including higher grades and test scores, have better school attendance, and stay in school longer.
This research also showed that young people who feel connected to their school are less likely to engage in many high-risk behaviors, such as early sexual initiation, alcohol, tobacco, and drug use, and violence and gang involvement.
HOW TO CREATE CONNECTEDNESS IN YOUR SCHOOL:
These important findings come as no surprise to Rachel’s Challenge. For over 20 years we’ve been affirming connectedness as a direct intervention to save students’ lives. We’ve experienced it first-hand in culturally and economically diverse schools across North America: students who feel connected are significantly less likely to hurt themselves or others and are more likely to achieve.
Here are some ways to increase school connectedness.
- Adult support includes school staff dedicating their time, interest, attention, and emotional support to students.
- A simple way to begin an adult support practice at your school is to get to know your students on a deeper level. Try our 180 Connections resource to help you connect with your students every day in class. You can access 180 Connections from our RC Digital program, order a physical copy here (all proceeds go toward lowering the cost of our programming), or access 12 weeks worth of free 180 Connections exercises here. P.S. They work great at home as well. We often hear from parents who are learning amazing facts about their children’s lives around the dinner table using these exercises.
- Another way to get to know students on a personal level is to do a “Check In” and “Check Out” with students each day. Check In with a greeting in the morning, then at the end of the day, do a “Check Out.” Ask about their day, their interests, and what they will do for the rest of the day after school. Be intentional with this conversation so students believe that you really care.
Belonging to a Positive Peer Group and School Culture:
- A positive peer group could be defined as an absence of bullying behaviors in a school environment,or peers that bring out the best in others. From the CDC, “Students’ health and educational outcomes are influenced by the characteristics of their peers, such as how socially competent peer group members are or whether the peer group supports pro-social behavior (e.g., engaging in school activities, completing homework assignments, helping others). Being part of a stable peer network protects students from being victimized or bullied.”
- The relationship between bullying and youth suicide is well understood. Bullying is toxic for all involved: Those exhibiting bullying behavior, the victims of bullying behavior, and the witnesses/bystanders to bullying behavior. From the CDC, “Bullying has serious and lasting negative effects on the mental health and overall well-being of youth involved in bullying in any way including: those who bully others, youth who are bullied, as well as those youth who both bully others and are bullied by others, sometimes referred to as bully-victims. Even youth who have observed but not participated in bullying behavior report significantly more feelings of helplessness and less sense of connectedness and support from responsible adults (parents/schools) than youth who are have not witnessed bullying behavior…Youth who report frequently bullying others and youth who report being frequently bullied are at increased risk for suicide-related behavior.”
- Try these exercises to address bullying in your school.
- Teaching kindness in schools is an essential foundation for addressing bullying behaviors and helping students create positive peer groups. Rachel’s Challenge teaches positive social and emotional skills, such as empathy and compassion, to address the root causes of unhealthy peer interactions.
- You can read the full CDC report on the link between bullying and suicide here.
Demonstrate a Commitment to Education and Connection to Possible Future Selves:
- Students need to have a strong connection within the school; their own niche, so to speak.“It is important that both students and adults are committed to learning and are involved in school activities. Students’ dedication to their own education is associated with the degree to which they perceive that their peers and important adults in their lives 1) believe school is important and 2) act on those beliefs. Students who are personally invested in school and believe that a good education is important for reaching their life goals spend more time on homework and in school activities and have an increased sense of connectedness to school.” – CDC
- Children perceive time as moving slowly when compared to adults. This can lead to a skewed perception of the future – that it either doesn’t exist or that it is very far away. Assisting students in setting concrete and attainable personal and academic goals helps students visualize their future and link their daily actions, such as school work, to their perceived future possible selves. This can lessen the mental impact of distressing events.
- When educators demonstrate commitment to the education of their students, they’re demonstrating commitment to a student’s future which helps a student believe they have a future. And it helps them feel connected. You can read more here.
Look out for the warning signs of youth suicide. There are many resources available to get help.
Rachel’s Challenge stands with victims and survivors. We know this has been a challenging time for everyone. We’re here to help students realize their life matters, and that they can make a difference. Every year we receive hundreds of letters from students who stepped away from suicide, self-harm, and bullying behaviors after participating in one of our programs. Students become stronger, more resilient individuals when they experience and take action through Rachel’s Challenge. You can read some of their stories here. You can share your story here. No one is alone when they feel connected
CDC Report: Strategic Direction for the Prevention of Suicidal Behavior
CDC Report: School Connectedness: Strategies For Increasing Protective Factors Among Youth
CDC Report: School Connectedness
CDC Report: The Relationship Between Bullying and Suicide