Law prompts schools to take steps to prevent suicide

What’s a classroom teacher to do when a student mentions having suicidal thoughts, or shows signs of emotional distress? How does the school counselor talk with the student’s parent? And where can the counselor refer a student for help? How should teachers, counselors and administration handle the grief and confusion following a student death by suicide? Crisis plans help educators anticipate and respond to issues like these. Washington’s public school districts are expected to have crisis plans in place by the end of this school year.

Comprehensive crisis response plans are the first prong of a state law, HB 1336, designed to help school personnel recognize and respond to students’ emotional and behavioral needs through additional training, more comprehensive planning, and better partnerships between schools and community resources. The law also calls for:

  • Including basic suicide prevention information in teachers’ “issues of abuse” training,
  • Requiring three hours of suicide risk assessment and referral training for school counselors, psychologists, nurses and similar professionals,
  • Building formal relationships and partnerships between schools and mental health professionals in their communities, and identifying effective staff training programs.

As implementation gets underway, state legislators will hold a January work session to see what’s going well, where there are gaps and what more needs to be done, says Rep. Tina Orwall who sponsored the bill in 2013. Many individuals now associated with Forefront were part of the grassroots effort behind the bill’s passage, and Rep. Orwall hopes they will speak up again when the Education and Health Care committees convene their work session.

District level work is taking place, according to Ron Hertel, who supervises Student Mental Health and Wellbeing/Compassionate Schools programs in the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). A state-funded model plan, which districts can download and customize to fit their own circumstances, is posted along with other suicide prevention resources on the OSPI website.

Requiring a plan to deal with suicide and other emotional and behavioral risks is “unique and transformative, ”says Lauren Davis, director of school programs at Forefront. She notes that until now most school crisis plans have revolved around risks like an active shooter or natural disaster, and ignored suicide and issues that arise in its aftermath, such as how to inform students and the public, and how to work with the family and support distressed friends, who themselves are at increased risk for suicide.

Developing suicide-specific protocols forces other important conversations, says Davis, who’s been involved in a similar process at the University of Washington. The UW process highlighted gaps, inconsistencies and areas for improvement, and raised the general level of awareness.

Additional training will be a positive step, says UW Educational Psychology Prof. James Mazza, a Forefront faculty affiliate whose research focuses on adolescent

James Mazza, PhD

mental health issues, including suicidal behavior. He hopes educators will gain additional lenses for spotting behavior changes in the students they see every day. Then they can refer students to counselors who have received more comprehensive training in suicide prevention.

The dearth of training specific to school counselors came as a surprise to supporters of 1336, says Sue Eastgard, Forefront’s founding director of training. School counselors deal with a wide range of issues, mostly unrelated to mental health, and few have either the skill set or a vetted list of resources to help deeply troubled students. Eastgard, along with Elizabeth McCauley (a Forefront advisory board member) and Cari McCarthy of Seattle Children’s, reviewed existing training curricula and found two that met the state standards, and a few more that could be augmented and brought up to speed.

One of the keys will be for counselors to have up-to-date lists of vetted private practitioners and agencies in their communities, complete with information on who is accepting patients, at what level of payment, and so on, Eastgard says, “Crisis plans will need constantly updated lists. It’s labor intensive, but if the district doesn’t have an up-to-date list, the students too often get sent to the emergency room.  And that’s not always the best place for them.”

The law is being called a good first step toward improving mental health and suicide prevention among school-age youth, but there’s wide agreement that it’s just the beginning of needed reform. The greater prize is a comprehensive approach to prevention and mental health, both in the classroom and out.

Mazza and others are working on classroom curricula that teach emotional regulation and positive social and coping skills that could begin as early as kindergarten and be applied throughout adulthood. “The educational formula needs to change,” he says. “Education needs to consist of academic learning plus coping strategies and healthy decision-making.” For those concerned about test scores, studies show that school-based social-emotional learning produces classroom environments that improve academic achievement.

Eastgard agrees: “Everyone should graduate with a sense of competency and ability to operate in the world.” Her basic toolkit of lifelong skills includes:

  • How to make and keep friends,
  • How to problem solve (If I do this, then . . .),
  • How to identify and talk about feelings,
  • How to tolerate distress.

And schools shouldn’t be expected do it alone, she says. For instance, community-based activities such as Boys and Girls Clubs, Scouts and faith-based youth groups could incorporate mental health and coping skills into their programs. “How about a Girl Scout badge for coping?” she asks.

Perhaps the 1336’s biggest payoff will be the attention it draws to a topic no one really wants to talk about until it’s too late and there’s a tragedy. “There’s more work to be done,” Rep. Orwall says, but she’s encouraged by the very fact that it’s started people talking about making students’ emotional wellbeing a priority.  — by Sue Lockett John