A National Emergency


That’s been on my mind a lot lately. A former student, someone with a rich support network, took his life recently, as did our neighbor’s beautiful and talented college-age daughter. We may never fully understand, but we mourn.

A former colleague posted this on Facebook recently:

A month ago a student I was close to told me she relapsed (cutting herself) after 6 Mos. I told the social worker and now that student won’t speak to me and is ignoring my emails. Today another student told me her boyfriend is depressed and she thinks is suicidal, he now goes to a different school but I had him last year. So I had to tell the social worker and they had to call the other school’s social worker. Now that student will likely no longer speak to me after her boyfriend got pulled out of class today. Being a teacher is so tough.

My response wrote itself before I could think it through: “What you do is invaluable! I’ve known two young people to commit suicide recently. Teachers like you are the first line of defense far too often. I’m so sorry about the toll it takes on you, but you know what a difference you may be making in the lives of some of your students.”

The stats are frightening: suicide has become “the second-leading cause of death among people age 15 to 24 in the U.S. Nearly 20% of high school students report serious thoughts of suicide and 9% have made an attempt to take their lives, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness” (uclahealth.org).

According to the Pew Trust research survey of high school students:

  • 22% said that they had seriously considered suicide within the past year, up from 16% in 2011
  • 18% said that they had made a suicide plan, compared with 13% ten years earlier
  • 10% said they attempted suicide at least once, compared with 8% ten years earlier
  • Female, black, and LGBTQ+ students had higher rates than other groups (pewtrusts.org)

Suicide prevention resources often list possible warning signs. Too often, adults miss the warning signs or the signs aren’t obvious. We already know that kids often struggle with their mental health, and I’ve called for more mental health support in schools and the community often. What, though, might change this growing tragedy?

Some important steps:

  • Increase mental health services in schools and the community – that’s urgent!
  • Train teachers to recognize any warning signs and teach them how to proceed when they do.
  • Provide training for parents so they, too, can recognize warning signs and know where and how to seek help for their kids.
  • Support the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation for universal suicide risk screenings for teens; most people who die by suicide have visited a healthcare provider in the weeks or months before to their death (aap.org). 
  • Publicize suicide hotlines: the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is available by phone, text, or chat 24/7 (https://988lifeline.org/), and The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a 24-hour, toll-free, confidential suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.
  • Expand anti-bullying programs; too many bullied teens commit suicide to avoid the pain.
  • Teach teens to be realistic about social media.
  • Teach teens about self-care.
  • Work on gun safety since firearms account for a growing number of suicides, more than half of all suicides in 2020 (kff.org). Limit gun sales to young adults and teach gun owners to lock up their firearms.
  • Teach parents to remove or secure dangerous drugs and lethal substances.

Two years ago the American Academy of Pediatrics partnered with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists and Children’s Hospital Association “to declare a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health” (aap.org2). What’s changed in two years? Not enough. The time is now.

A Soothing Reprieve

To counter the endless onslaught of bad news, I have made a conscious effort to seek out and notice any good news. One source is the What Could Go Right newsletter and podcast from the Progress Network, which brightens my day.

So I’ve decided to start collecting good news about issues I’ve been blogging about. Here are some encouraging stories.

Responses to Book Banning

  • Library commissioners in Llano County, Texas, voted to keep its three-branch system open after officials had threatened to close the libraries after right-wing protests about their content. The commissioners had removed a number of books based on a single complaint, then dissolved the current library board and replaced it with book banning advocates including the complainant. When other residents won their lawsuit calling for the books’ return, the county considered closing the libraries pending the suit’s resolution. But, “Under intense scrutiny, the commission blinked. Its leader acknowledged feeling pressure from ‘social media’ and ‘news media’” (washingtonpost.com).
  • The Brooklyn Public Library is providing free access to its entire catalog of 500,000 digital books to anyone aged 13 to 21 anywhere in the country as a response to book banning. Youth receive an electronic membership card that doesn’t require parental approval. In the last year, the library has registered more than 6,000 teens in all 50 states, and they’ve already checked out over 70,000 books. Their press officer says, “That’s a wonderful thing, because it means that we’ve provided 6,000 more teens access with books and information. But it’s also a heartbreaking thing, because it means 6,000 teens need it” (fastcompany.com).
  • The Bluest Eye is back on high school shelves in Pinellas County, Florida. Florida HB 1467 lists the felony charges for school librarians could face if they allow any books that are pornographic or harmful to minors. The superintendent banned this book because one parent made an informal complaint about a rape scene in it. Last month seven district media specialists decided to make the book available in district library media centers for high school students with no parental permission required, and teachers will be able to use the book in their classrooms provided they follow district policy on controversial materials, which calls for parental consent and alternative options (tampabay.com).

A Response to Learning Loss from the Pandemic

  • Atlanta, Georgia, has added thirty minutes of classroom instruction per day for three years to help students catch up. Some elementary teachers have moved up each grade with their students to give them a head start every fall (Chicago Tribune 4/23/23p. 5).

A Response to the Teacher Shortage

  • The University of Wisconsin has just extended its Teacher Pledge program to help reduce the severe teacher shortage. UW pays the equivalent of in-state tuition and fees in exchange for teaching in a Wisconsin PK_12 school for three to four years after graduation. 556 students have taken the Teacher Pledge, and 226 Pledge alumni are now teaching in classrooms around the state of Wisconsin (wisc.edu).

Social Media and Education

  • Two judges in Kane County, Illinois [where we live] have developed an hour-long presentation geared toward middle school students that explores the harmful and potentially criminal effects of cyber bullying and sexting. They’ve presented the program in Kane County and in Chicago and hope to expand it (Kane County Connects 8/23/22).
  • Huntley, a northwestern small town in Illinois, has launched a new platform for students and parents “to report instances of bullying, mental health concerns and unsafe situations in schools.” Those who reach out will be connected to staff in real-time, allowing two-way communication and providing students with easy access to staff for help (huntley158.org).

Student Activism

  • Two students in northern Illinois suburbs have joined forces to get bills passed to expand history course to include Asian Americans and indigenous Americans. They have been working with state legislators, and Illinois passed the Teaching Equitable Asian American History Act in July 2021, the first state in the nation to require public schools to teach Asian American History. Now they are working with students in Washington, New York and New Jersey — trying to get similar bills passed in those states and on the federal level (dailyherald.com).
  • Chicago Public Schools students who are members of the Chicago Chess Foundation travel to Ghana to hold competitions for Ghanian students and build cross-cultural understanding. They’re already planning a return next year and hope to bring Ghanian students to the United States (Chicago Tribune 4/30/23 p. 4).

We need to find these nuggets and celebrate them – not all the news is bad these days. This is my gift to you!