Preventing Youth Suicide
The need for effective teen suicide prevention has reached a crisis, as the suicide rate among teens has risen at alarming rates. Prior to the pandemic, teen suicide was already an emergency: between the years of 2009-2018, rates had increased by 61.7%. The extraordinary conditions surrounding the pandemic and related response has accelerated this trend by piling crisis on top of crisis. A new CDC report found that youth suicide rates and youth suicide attempts have skyrocketed by as much as an additional 30% since March 2020.
Youth mental health threats are illuminating a significant need for actionable solutions for students in a post-pandemic world.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 34. In 2020, one young person died of suicide every 79 minutes. While 90% of people who attempt suicide survive, the emotional, physical, and social impacts of such attempts are nonetheless far-reaching. Since the beginning of the pandemic, ER visits related to attempted suicide rose 33.1% among youth aged 12-17, averaging one attempt every 50 seconds. And it’s worse for girls: ER visits for suicide attempts among females increased 50.6% compared to corresponding data in 2019.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy – and the greatest source of hope – is that this disaster is preventable; it doesn’t need to be this way Research by the CDC and other institutions has shown that there are specific, positive tools that can reduce teen suicide and self-harm. Community support and strong connections to others, including family members, friends, and educators, is shown to decrease feelings of despair, suicidal thoughts and behaviors. It is important for everyone in a student’s sphere of influence to understand the causes, recognize the signs, and learn the steps that can lead not only to reduced suicide, but better mental health and social skills overall.
Why Do Teens
There is rarely one single cause of teen sucide; it is often a combination of circumstances and events that accumulate to create despair. Experts cite psychological, environmental, and social factors as contributors, although studies show that eliminating one group or area of concern is usually sufficient to pull a person “off the edge” and change their risk profile. Research shows that more than 90% of people who die by suicide have certain risk factors in common, including depression, social isolation, trauma, other mental health disorders, and substance use disorders.
Suicide is consistenly linked to several other forms of violence and injury, including bullying, harassment, sexual violence and abuse, and child abuse. These types of trauma directly increase suicide risk for those that endure them.
Consensus is also growing that the recent and abrupt deterioration in mental health among youth is correlated with smartphones and digital media. In the 10 years prior to the pandemic, data shows a sharp and steady increase in depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-harm, suicide, bullying and school violence. Charting these statistics against the introduction and adoption rate of mobile social technologies during the same period shows significant parallels. Studies are still being conducted, but there may be two overarching reasons for the phenomenon.
Chronic social media use can increase social isolation, while creating an entirely new venue for bullying and rejection. So it’s a double whammy: taking away the crucial in-person connection and support that is known to prevent suicide, while enabling fierce and widespread bullying, a known cause of suicide.
When risk factors combine, or occur along with external circumstances, at-risk teens who lack sufficient social and emotional skills to cope can become overwhelmed. Some of these additional stressors include sexual orientation confusion, family violence, interpersonal losses, economic hardship, and family instability.
Bullying and Suicide
Bullying is one of the most significant factors contributing to suicide. An important part of adolescence is establishing a social connection among peers, and bullying can directly impair or contradict a youth’s best efforts to integrate themselves as part of a group. The damage inflicted can be intense, especially for children that may be unequipped for dealing with rejection and failure.
Bullying also affects the wider culture of a school, leading to a less tolerant, fear-based and anxious atmosphere. Crucially, it isn’t just the victims of bullying, but those who bully that exhibit increased risk for suicide. Bullying or violent behavior in youth is a consistent indicator that additional factors are at work. A student who bullies may be a victim of bullying among adults or family members, or be experiencing other forms of mental, physical or sexual abuse or trauma. Various forms of social isolation are also key contributors to negative behaviors.
Bullying is a recursive cycle that escalates risk factors across the spectrum. When added to pre-existing conditions such as lack of support and social isolation and loneliness, or a deficit of adaptive coping skills, it can induce suicidal thoughts and actions. Added to psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, anxiety, or conduct disorders, the resulting actions can be predictably severe.
Teen Suicide Warning Signs
Teen suicide statistics show that almost 19% of high school students have seriously considered suicide, with nearly 9% going on to attempt.
It can be difficult to accurately predict if a teen will ultimately attempt to commit suicide, which is why understanding the underlying causes, monitoring and addressing them pre-emptively is so important However, four out of five suicide deaths are preceded by immediate warning signs. It’s vital that school staff and parents be trained to identify the signs associated with teen suicidal ideation.
According to the American Psychological Association, warning signs include:
By identifying these warning signs, trusted adults or peers can take immediate action and address these changes and emotions head-on with the teen. Steps can be taken to mitigate social isolation and provide suicidal teens with access to trusting support and personal connection. When proactively applied, such intervention is usually enough to pull a struggling teen back from the active ideation phase.
Each year, youth suicidal attempts, ideation, and completion continue to rise. See below for information on preventing suicide in schools.
Prevention in Schools
While it may seem to be an impossibly tall order to prevent teen suicide in our schools, the truth is that schools are actually an ideal setting in which to prevent suicide. The adults in educational systems who develop relationships and interact with students daily can play a vital role in keeping them safe.
It starts with culture. Cultivating a safe and trusting school environment positively affects the mental health of students, which in turn affects how well they perform in school, academically and socially. Building an environment of trust also improves their ability to deal with and regulate strong emotions and solve problems in healthy, non-violent ways.
Schools can take action by using a comprehensive approach to teen suicide prevention. This approach should promote, encourage, and teach connectedness, inclusivity, and emotional well-being among all students.
How one suicide is handled in a school with students and staff can have considerable knock-on effects, leading to either the onset of general emotional healing or, unfortunately, a rash of copycat incidents. In addition, students who may be at a heightened risk for suicide should be immediately identified so that proactive support can be made available to them. Schools must also be prepared to respond when there is a death by suicide on their campus.
Preventing Suicide Through Connectedness
Many risk factors of suicide are related to the concept of connectedness, which is the degree to which a teen is socially interrelated with other people or groups. In general terms, students need to feel like they belong or are not alone.
Positive, strong relationships can protect students against suicidal behaviors and thoughts. Connectedness can increase the frequency and quality of social contact, decrease feelings of social isolation and loneliness, and increase the number of a teen’s trusting, healthy reciprocal relationships.
Social-emotional learning (SEL) is paramount in reducing and preventing teen suicide in schools. The fundamentals of social-emotional learning are the processes by which children develop and maintain positive relationships.
Through SEL, teens learn how to manage emotions, achieve goals, develop healthy identities, feel empathy, and make responsible decisions. SEL also addresses various forms of inequity as it empowers students and teachers to cultivate thriving, inclusive, and safe school climates.
Rachel’s Challenge programs for elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools combine training for school personnel and students, as well as life-changing assembly presentations for students. This social-emotional learning suite of programs helps schools cultivate a learning environment where students feel safe, accepted, and included whileestablishing an atmosphere of hope and connection.
Rachel’s Challenge makes schools kinder, safer, and more connected as students become more emotionally resilient and self-aware. Rachel’s Challenge to date has been presented and adopted in over 20,000 schools, played an integral role in averting eight school shootings, and averts hundreds of youth suicides annually.
Rachel’s Challenge has also been shown to be very effective for suicide prevention at the schools that participate in the programs. To get more information on Rachel’s Challenge and how you can bring it to your school, contact Rachel’s Challenge now.school, contact Rachel’s Challenge now.
Rachel’s Challenge has helped me continue my chain reaction an entire decade later. Today, as I cultivate my “save the world gene” as a young professional, I am reminded of where it began. With kindness and compassion.”
Rachel’s Challenge Student
Rachel’s Challenge is the most powerful intervention I’ve seen in my 40 years of educational research.”
Dr Roberto Marzano
Educator, Researcher, Author
Rachel’s Challenge stimulates academic and social emotional-learning by focusing on the connection between students, faculties and staff.”
Principal, Rice Lake High School