A Growing Need

Consider proactive strategies and holistic support of student mental health

The pandemic has intensified concerns about student mental health and well-being. The environment of uncertainty and isolation created by the pandemic is elevating anxiety, depression, fear and grief in many students. Schools and universities, which are home to students for a substantial part of the day, are uniquely positioned to play a key role in helping students struggling with these emotions, supporting student mental health and preventing suicide.

The Growing Crisis of Youth Suicide

Youth suicide is a growing crisis. According to the CDC, suicide is the second leading cause of death among high school youth (ages 14 to 18 years). Data from the CDC also reveals that from 2009 to 2018, suicide rates among youths aged 14 to 18 years increased by 61.7% from 6.0 to 9.7 per 100,000 population. In 2019, approximately one in five (18.8%) youths had seriously considered attempting suicide, one in six (15.7%) had made a suicide plan, one in 11 (8.9%) had made an attempt, and one in 40 (2.5%) had made a suicide attempt requiring medical treatment.

Suicide is also the second leading cause of death for college students, and nearly 30% of college students report having seriously considered suicide in their lifetime.

Suicide Prevention in Schools

These alarming statistics point to a growing need for schools and universities to implement suicide prevention policies and programs as well as strategies designed to support overall student mental health and well-being.

Recognizing this, state and federal lawmakers have enacted new laws aimed at advancing suicide prevention efforts in schools. The National Association of School Psychologists noted that “the recent legislation has demonstrated the commitment and recognition of policy makers around the importance of school-based prevention efforts; the approval for a three-digit national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline system and mandated suicide prevention education for students, staffand parents.”

Suicide prevention in schools starts with training teachers, administrators and other staffon recognizing the signs of suicide. The Mayo Clinic lists some of the warning signs of teen suicide as:

  • Talking or writing about suicide — for example, making statements such as "I'm going to kill myself," or "I won't be a problem for you much longer"
  • Withdrawing from social contact
  • Having mood swings
  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
  • Feeling trapped or hopeless about a situation
  • Changing normal routine, including eating or sleeping patterns
  • Doing risky or self-destructive things
  • Giving away belongings when there is no other logical explanation for why this is being done
  • Developing personality changes or being severely anxious or agitated when experiencing some of the warning signs listed above

Parents and students should also be educated to look for these signs and symptoms. Students should be aware of where they can go for help if they are struggling and what to do if they see these warning signs in a peer.

Also critical to suicide prevention are system-based approaches that teach social and emotional learning, techniques for managing feelings and healthy coping and problem-solving skills. For example, students can be taught to minimize anxiety and stress by setting and focusing on short-term goals.

Peer-led programs are also an effective part of school suicide prevention programs. These peer-led programs can create a forum for discussing issues such as stress, anxiety and mental health and help raise awareness about suicide including how to prevent it and where to go to get help.

The CDC also recommends comprehensive approaches to suicide prevention, including promoting connectedness between youths and their schools, teachers, peers and family. One of the ways schools can do this is by pairing students with a caring adult at school who provides adult support, regularly checking-in with them and looking for signs of distress.

Developing Effective School Mental Health Programs

A holistic approach to supporting student mental health is needed in schools. Research conducted by The Jed Foundation and Fluent Research found that “students’ mental health needs were significant and were not being fully addressed in high schools.”

A survey of 1,014 U.S. high school students in grades 9-12, their caregivers, and 479 high school administrators revealed that “both school administrators and caregivers believed it was the school’s responsibility to address students’ mental health and emotional wellbeing. This was especially true when it came to educating students on how to reach out for help if they needed mental health services (62% of administrators strongly agreed that this was the school’s role; 67% of caregivers strongly agreed that this was the school’s role). Additionally, 58% of school administrators and 62% of caregivers strongly agreed that it was the school’s responsibility to make efforts to prevent suicide among students.”

The survey also highlighted student need for more mental health resources and strategies. “Eighteen percent or fewer students felt that most students know healthy ways to cope with stress, available resources to help with mental health issues, and the signs of suicidal ideation. Only 12% of students felt that most other students would be willing to ask for help from a school adult for a mental health issue.”

Screening is one strategy that can help schools address student mental health issues by identifying students who may need extra support. The American Psychological Association recommends that schools adopt systematic screening of the school population to identify students who may have difficulties with anxiety or depression which can often go undetected. The APA notes that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 15 to 20% of students could be expected to be identified as needing support through screening and “this percentage will almost certainly be higher given the potential emotional fallout of the pandemic.”

Schools can also support student well-being by normalizing discussions around mental health to create a climate where mental health is not stigmatized. Teaching students how healthy habits such as eating right, getting adequate sleep and regularly exercising, and encouraging them to adopt these habits can help students support their own well-being.

Regularly providing guidance to students about the mental health support available to them and ensuring that this help is easily accessible when students need it is also a key part of effective school mental health programs.

The Department of Health and Human Services notes that “efforts to care for the emotional well-being of children and youth can extend beyond the classroom and into the entire school. School-based mental health programs can focus on promoting mental wellness, preventing mental health problems, and providing treatment.”

The pandemic has taken a toll on students’ mental health. Students are reporting higher rates of depression and anxiety than before the pandemic. A June 2020 CDC survey found that 62.9% of the 18 to 24-year olds surveyed reported mental health challenges of anxiety or depressive disorder related to the pandemic.

Now more than ever, schools should be prioritizing programs and strategies designed to support student mental health. A proactive approach to suicide prevention and the development of holistic mental health programs can help keep students safe.

This article originally appeared in the May / June 2021 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.

Digital Edition