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.

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