One in 15 teens will attempt suicide this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and Creston Community School District is equipping its staff with the knowledge to reduce those numbers for its population.
According to the National Institute for Mental Health,suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers.
In 2018, Iowa passed a law requiring public school employees be trained in suicide prevention. The Area Education Agency provides an online training to help school districts meet the requirements of this law at no cost to the district.
Creston Community High School art teacher Bailey Fry-Schnormeier took advantage of this online training last week.
School employees are gatekeepers — adults who interact with teens as a part of their regular day who can provide a link, or gate, to mental health services — allowing them to identify changes in students’ behaviors and moods. Fry-Schnormeier said especially students who are passionate about art, she may see them as much or more than the their parents.
Trainees learn how to listen and what to say and not to say to a teen who may be in crisis. A thoughtful “I’m hear to listen,” can be what allows a student to open up to the staff member. An off-the-cuff “cheer up,” or “things will get better,” might make students reluctant to express themselves.
Fry-Schnormeier said that this is sometimes contrary to a teacher’s first instinct.
“We want to be our students’ cheerleaders,” she said. “We want to cheer them up, sometimes not realizing how someone is really feeling.”
The training also debunked some myths surrounding suicide. Talking about suicide does not lead to increased rates of suicide. Instead, it can create a climate where a troubled student would be willing and able to talk to someone.
Vocabulary is important when speaking to students about suicide. Staff should not use the term “failed suicide” because “failing” is usually equated with trying harder. Instead, staff should emphasize the opportunity to get help.
Similarly, the term “committed suicide” sounds like the person “committed” a crime, leading students to be wary of talking to authorities.
It is important that the adult involved be honest with the student about not being able to keep information about suicidal thoughts confidential. School employees are mandatory reporters, which makes it illegal for them not to report such things.
Honestly explaining this to the student, along with a reassurance that the staff member is trying to do what is best for them, will help keep the student from feeling their confidence has been betrayed.
Fry-Schnormeier said that explaining this to a student has led to the student being willing to go with her to speak to a counselor or the appropriate authority.
An important aspect of suicide prevention is to follow up immediately and check in with the student. When staff members suspect or have information that a student is in trouble, the next day might be too late.
Fry-Schnormeier explained why this training is important for school staff.
“Being aware of warning signs and what to look for is so important,” she said. “We have a lot of kids who are dealing with mental health issues and we need to be aware.”
She hopes that the school district or individual teachers will continue to add to this training and involve the students.
“The more we can focus on compassion ... communicating with other adults, finding ways to do that,” she said.
If you or someone you know is in a suicidal crisis, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)— National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.