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Student Well-Being Q&A

After Suicides of Parkland Survivors, Here’s What Educators Should Know About Supporting Students

By Evie Blad — March 25, 2019 9 min read
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Parkland, Fla., is experiencing a fresh wave of grief after the recent suicides of two students who survived the mass school shooting there last year.

A swell of coverage of those deaths—and of an apparent suicide of the father of a child who died in the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn.—are driving questions about suicide contagion, trauma, survivor’s guilt, and student mental health to the forefront. And those questions are relevant to educators around the country, even if their students haven’t survived a collective trauma that dominated headlines.

Prevention experts say it’s wrong to assume a single cause for any specific suicide, even those in Parkland. But, recognizing that students there have an obvious need for support, a coalition of schools, community groups, and faith organizations has organized to connect students to counseling and resources as the town grapples with more losses.

Even far outside of the affected communities, widespread news reports and social media posts about suicides can produce a contagion effect, some prevention researchers say. That’s particularly true if the coverage sensationalizes the death, provides too many concrete details, or frames suicide as an inevitable response to mental health issues or difficulties in life, said Christine Moutier, the chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Education Week spoke about the events in Parkland with Moutier and with Michael Anestis, associate psychology professor at the University of Southern Mississippi and co-chair of the American Association of Suicidology’s firearms and suicide committee. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or text TALK to 741741.

Moutier emphasized the important role that educators play in supporting students. Teachers should be mindful about changes in student behavior, and they should offer resources to students who share mental health concerns or thoughts of suicide, she said.

What would you say teachers need to know and think about right now as teen suicides are in the news?

Moutier: First of all, I would thank educators for doing the job that they do because it is so multi-faceted and they are being looked to for so many layers of youth development these days. And I would just try to make them aware, if they’re not already, that at any moment in any of their classrooms, there’s a certain percentage of students who are actively struggling but not necessarily showing it overtly. The stats on that from the Youth Risk Behavior Study [a federal survey of student risk-taking behaviors] most recently is about one in five students in the past 12 months has had serious thoughts of suicide.

Discussions about suicide and student mental health can be intimidating for teachers and parents. Do you have any recommendations?

Moutier: The most basic thing that any kind of adult can do is to model it, to say, “I’ve struggled before. I’ve faced challenges in my life because we all do. It’s a matter of time before we do, or it’s a just a question of what the details of that challenge will be.” ...

Avoid filling the silence with too much of your own talking. A student can feel valued and validated by active listening. It’s hard for us adults to do. And it’s probably [hard] for teachers, too, who are used to giving more of a didactic kind of experience in the classroom.

And avoid quick-fix statements. And that’s hard. Because you want to be hopeful... but avoid saying, ‘That’s no big deal. You’ve got this.’ The minimizing of the struggle that they’re in is what they’re already afraid of when they take the risk of telling the adults what’s going on. So avoid minimizing, avoid quick-fix solutions, avoid platitudes, avoid any kind of judgmental language around the struggle itself.

If a young person is sharing about symptoms of depression, or burnout, or sleep problems, or scary ways they are thinking or feeling, be extra compassionate. Thank the students for sharing about that, let them know that there’s help available and that those experiences they’re having are not a forever state.

The adolescent brain is in a state of transition where that primitive part of the brain—the fear response, the stress response, energy ,and impulsivity—are fully developed by age 14, but the cortical areas of the brain, that higher cortex of thinking—executive functioning, planning, and ambition—that doesn’t finish developing until early to mid-20s. So kids are not thinking in terms of the long haul. Teachers can help students not only feel supported in the moment, but also to ... bridge through to this longer-term perspective of their life.

For a teacher in a school far from Florida, whose students haven’t experienced a big, collective trauma like a school shooting, it might be difficult to see how these headlines might affect them. But is there reason to be concerned that these stories could affect them, too?

Moutier: Just because your local community hasn’t experienced the trauma doesn’t mean that individuals within the community aren’t going through their own family and individual health circumstances. You have young people who are already carrying their own risk load, perhaps quite invisibly and undetected to those around them. And that’s part of our job is to dial up the sensitivity on our radar so that we see the change when it happens.

And they might relate to one of these Parkland survivors for reasons that adults can’t even understand. The link is real to them.

Moutier: That’s a great point. The relatability of the circumstances may be quite invisible. And that is a real factor for many young people.

For youth, the potential for contagion is even greater because they’re in that formative developmental stage where they’re... looking for those ways of better defining themselves. And if they have had a traumatic background or some type of sensitivity in their past, then those stories may in fact feel much more close to them.

Anestis said it’s important for families to safely store firearms and other objects that may pose a danger to a child in crisis. And it’s important for schools to communicate with families about potential risks.

What are the unique concerns for students who’ve experienced a high-profile trauma like a school shooting?

Anestis: Any time you have a traumatic event—loss to suicide or gun violence or any other form of traumatic loss—there’s always a risk around the time that it happens. There’s always a risk that pops up around times like anniversaries.

The attention and the nature of what this past year has been for Parkland students, I think, has been relatively unique. The plus of it is that it’s really changed the gun conversation, which I think is great, and I consider them absolute heroes for what they’ve been doing. The down side is probably that they’ve been in the limelight. There hasn’t been a lot of time for them to be away from it. For some folks [activism around issues like gun violence and school safety] has been a great sort of healing avenue for them. It’s been an outlet for them to be able to do some good with it. But for some other folks, it has probably been difficult in that it’s hard to just have a normal day because it’s always about that day.

What are some things schools that experience losses like this can do to help students?

Anestis: You don’t want to create hysteria and create the impression that suicide is truly contagious. It doesn’t come out of nowhere. People who are at risk for suicide or died by suicide, they don’t catch it like a virus. Right? So the word contagion can be tricky that way.

At the same time, you don’t want to underestimate what people are going through. One of the things that ...[researchers] have found in the research on folks who survived [lost someone to suicide] is that the people who are most impacted by it aren’t always the ones you’d expect. And so yes, you’d expect people really close to these particular folks who died to be really hurting right now, and that closeness matters. But also there are folks that consider themselves loss survivors that didn’t know the person very well and probably couldn’t even explain to you why it has impacted them that much.

One of the things that a community needs to do is to make sure that everybody knows they can have access [to counseling and support], and that what they’re feeling is valid and something that they can get help with. They need to make sure that there’s a range of options. Not everybody wants to use the same hotline or identifies with the same group. Some people want to speak broadly to a suicide prevention specialist. Someone might want to speak to someone specific to their community—be it military or sexual minority or something like that. And so the idea is to reach out and take people seriously. Offer a variety of resources, and do your best to make sure those resources are grounded in some reason to believe they’re effective.

I’ve heard survivors of the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. say that they scrutinized their own trauma. They tried to rank it, and some felt like their emotions weren’t justified because they weren’t as close to the violence.

Anestis: That’s not how it works though. People respond to different things differently and they also bring their own lives to that moment. Their lives didn’t start at that moment, right? They were their own people with their own lens through which they saw their world. And so how they’re impacted by that [event] is going to differ. So it’s not a right or wrong.

People feel what they feel, and what they feel is valid. And so if somebody was right there and they’re not feeling traumatized, they don’t need to feel bad about that... And on the flip side of that, if someone was really far from it and it’s really impacting them, they also don’t need to feel guilt about that. We have very little control over what we feel. We have more control over what we do about it. But what we feel can be made worse if other people or we ourselves try to talk ourselves into feeling badly about it.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has assembled resources to help parents, educators, and the public understand and discuss suicide:

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or text TALK to 741741. You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.

Photo: Getty Images

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.