School Violence and Suicide
An Overview of School-Based Crisis Response and Prevention
When it comes to student mental health needs, education professionals agree that engaging in proactive practices to keep students mentally healthy are much more effective than practices designed to assist students already in distress. As the old cliché goes, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Schools should be prepared with crisis response and prevention practices in place. Schools may reduce the chance of school-based violence or mental health crises occurring in their buildings, by regularly engaging in school-wide positive behavior support programs as well as engaging in social and emotional character development.
As I've referenced before, school psychologists are trained to be mental health practitioners in the schools. While this is an important element of the school psychologist's duties, it's important for all education professionals to recognize some risk factors and warning signs of students in need of additional mental health services.
I've heard educators say that they are intimidated by the thought of working with a student who needs intensive mental health interventions. Educators know the importance of helping students in need, yet also know importance of receiving professional training prior to working with students in crisis. Teachers may be scared to "say the wrong thing," This fear is understandable, and I hope to dispel some of the anxiety felt in these situations with practical information.
A great, free website that puts practical knowledge, skills, and tools into teachers' hands to address this fear is made possible through Scholastic. The Children & Grief section of their website offers videos, lesson suggestions, talking points, books, support group contact information, and other useful tools to empower teachers to help students through the emotional hardships associated with loss and uncertainty. I highly recommend this site to all educators of primary and elementary grade levels.
When teachers have told me their fears about this situation, I always say that most important thing is to listen. Students who are in a state of mental crisis aren't looking for a pep talk. Many times, these students aren't even in a state of alertness so that they could understand reason and logical advice. What a student needs in these moments of despair and distress is not professional guidance, but sincere acceptance. Listen to their concerns, acknowledge their feelings, and show genuine compassion for their well-being.
What are the warning signs for childhood suicide or school-based violence? The following list of warning signs are nearly all "normal" under appropriate circumstances, and in isolation do not automatically indicate a need for immediate attention or follow-up. However, history and research does indicate that the following items are often identified in students who have completed acts of school violence or suicide. Review these with caution; keep in mind these are "warning signs", and not automatic correlative links.
Verbal threats of suicide.
Written threats of suicide.
Giving away of prized possessions.
Changes in appetite.
Changes in mood or behavior.
No clear adult connection. Relationships with peers may also be weak.
Social withdrawal (even if from a relatively small peer group.)
Feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, apathy, or rejection.
History of being bullied or abused.
School or work absenteeism.
History of drug use.
Access to firearms or other weaponry.
Academic failure (either a long-standing history, or a noticeable rapid declination.)
Interest in violence in literature.
References to violence or suicide in artwork, writings, or conversations.
History of mental illness.
Online Resources and Toll-Free Hotlines
Other resources that may help in identification of, and support to, students with severe mental health needs:
The American School Counselor Association's Crisis and Critical Incident Response in the Schools Statement
The American School Counselor Association's Student Mental Health Statement
The American School Health Association's Mental Health Screening in Schools
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System
The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Safe Schools Initiative
The Kansas State Department of Education's Safe School Resource Center
The National Association of School Psychologists' School Safety Statement
The National Association of School Psychologists' School Safety and Crisis Resources Page
The US Department of Education's Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools
The US Department of Education's Practical Information on Crisis Planning