Guest post by: Richard Lieberman MA, NCSP
Richard Lieberman MA, NCSP is a Lecturer in the Graduate School of Education at Loyola Marymount University and from 1986-2011 he coordinated Suicide Prevention Services for Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school district in the US. He has co-authored numerous book chapters on suicide intervention in the schools; consulted nationally with districts experiencing suicide clusters; served on the Steering Committee for the Suicide Prevention Resource Center and contributed to both the SAMHSA Preventing Suicide and SPRC/AFSP After a Suicide school toolkits.
Before the COVID crisis, suicide was considered the most devastating public health problem in the U.S. Youth rates have risen steadily over the past decade and suicide has become the second leading cause of death for American youth aged 10-24. Monitoring students’ mental health and providing appropriate intervention to support academic success has always been challenging for schools. Resources are limited, and there are many competing priorities. COVID-19 has exacerbated the challenge and made it even more difficult to identify and access students, then provide support when needed.
There is no single cause of a young person’s suicide. The factors that place a child at risk come together in a perfect storm, and with the COVID-19 pandemic, we see the components of the storm gathering. The local mandates of local distancing have no doubt left many youths isolated with considerable fear and anxiety about the future. Many students were already struggling to cope with pre-existing mental health issues such as depression or alcohol and substance abuse. Now their families are under intense economic stressors potentially leading to increases in domestic violence and the fracture of vital relationships.
As schools struggle to reopen safely for students, many districts are implementing new platforms for remote learning. It would be prudent for every district to establish a suicide prevention task force consisting of dedicated, knowledgeable administrators and mental health personnel, charged with reevaluating the district’s suicide prevention policies and procedures in the age of distance learning. Comprehensive school suicide prevention policies include prevention, intervention, and postvention components. They should address the needs of certain high-risk groups such as youth bereaved by suicide; youth with disabilities, mental illness; LGBTQ youth, and those youth experiencing homelessness or living in foster care.
It would be prudent for every district to establish a suicide prevention task force
Most critical at this time is the training of school mental health personnel in preparing and conducting virtual suicide risk assessments. This prevention task force could also be expanded to include community mental health, law enforcement, advocacy groups, and faith-based leaders as well. Everyone plays a role in suicide prevention!
Three issues to be immediately addressed by your new task force:
Providing for the needs of students of color who face disproportionate impact from COVID and often, in addition, find themselves on the other side of the digital divide devoid of connectedness, grappling with technical issues such as device accessibility, privacy for learning around the home, and questionable WiFi connections.
Providing support for teachers and parents with care for caregiver assistance and culturally sensitive resources for the home and classroom that empower staff/parents to identify students at risk and those coping with COVID grief and loss.
Establishing policies for intervening in the aftermath of a student or staff death by suicide which include: intervening in small groups only (no assemblies) and establishing one policy of memorialization that addresses all student deaths.
There are many valuable resources available to help guide administrators from the National Association of School Psychologists, a national leader in school crisis prevention and intervention. For resources specific to virtual suicide prevention and for supportive COVID resources for staff and parents.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created numerous complex challenges for school district administrators. Decisions made by school leaders will have a lasting effect on students’ health and education. Mental health risks add to concerns regarding physical health, and no priority is more important than ensuring the safety of students in our care. If you don’t already have one, establish a suicide prevention task force. Charge the task force with developing a plan for prevention, intervention, and postvention that meets the needs of today’s ever-changing operating environment. Doing so will give you the confidence that a critical area of student safety is appropriately and sustainably managed.