Montana has some of the most beautiful vistas in America within Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. However, the state is also associated with an ugly statistic: Montana has the highest suicide rate in the nation. The rate, 29.2 suicides for every 100,000 residents, is nearly twice the national average. In Montana, suicide is the leading cause of death for children ages 10-14 and the second leading cause of death for children 15 to 24.
Montana’s 2017 High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey data emphasizes the concern. Thirty one percent of the state’s high school students felt sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row. Over 20 percent seriously considered attempting suicide. More than 16 percent made a plan about how they would attempt suicide. Nearly 10 percent attempted suicide. These awful statistics have educators around our state hastening to implement suicide prevention programs with staff and students.
Although there are many contributing factors to youth suicide, our school realized that to implement meaningful suicide prevention strategies, we had to acknowledge larger concerns regarding student mental health. Regrettably, approximately 1 in 5 American adolescents is contending with a serious mental-health condition. The prevalence of these conditions in our youths and the effect they can have on learning caused us to take a hard look at how to provide social, emotional, and behavioral supports for all learners.
And, so, four years ago, we implemented the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support, a continuous improvement framework intended to identify and support students who were struggling academically, socially, emotionally, or behaviorally. We built staff consensus around the precept that we have a professional responsibility to ensure all students have the necessary supports to be successful. We cultivated the belief with staff that social-emotional needs were just as essential for student success as academic needs. We built upon the existing schoolwide positive behavior intervention program and added pathways of increasingly intensive, data-driven interventions for individual students.
We focused on implementing schoolwide prevention and intervention programs which positively and personally impacted every student. We began assigning each student a staff member to serve as their personal academic trainer, who advocates for student success and well-being. They meet with students daily in middle school and at least weekly in high school to set goals, develop plans for how to achieve these goals, motivate students, and celebrate student successes.
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These trainers also identify academic or social-emotional challenges that a student may be experiencing. They are asked to develop a positive, personal relationship with students so they may serve as a supportive resource if a student encounters challenges—be they academic, social, emotional, or behavioral. Since implementing this personal academic trainer program three years ago, we have reduced by more than two-thirds the number of students in our school who need a more intensive student assistance intervention plan, including in-school mental-health services.
We also realized we needed to draw upon the expertise of teachers to further identify which students required strategic or intensive mental-health services. Now, teachers screen all students twice annually using the Systematic Screening for Behavior Disorders, a universal behavioral screening system. Based on the results, some students are connected with regular, school-based mental-health services, both counselors and private providers operating in school facilities.
The high student-to-staff ratios and inadequate state and federal funding to support school mental-health services often leave counselors with limited resources. In our school, for example, our two guidance counselors each handle an average of more than 220 students; our sole school psychologist covers all 442 students.
To provide additional mental-health resources, we have established partnerships with multiple therapists, psychologists, and other private mental-health service providers. These providers deliver a Comprehensive School and Community Treatment program which includes access to school-based therapy, behavioral, and life-skills training.
Providers bill Medicaid and private insurance for the students’ sessions, and the school provides the offices necessary to allow the therapists or case managers to meet with students during the school day. Now, roughly 10 percent of our school’s population receives in-school mental-health-therapy services through CSCT, up from 4 percent four years ago when we greatly expanded the program.
Creating a school environment that continually and comprehensively supports the mental well-being of every student must be a focus for all educators. All schools should be looking for creative ways to address how to improve student mental health and prevent student suicide. Unfortunately, we both have had years in our careers where we lost one or more students to suicide.
It is a sad state of affairs when, at the conclusion of each academic year, we look forward to breathing a sigh of relief that we did not lose a student to suicide.
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A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 2018 edition of Education Week as Suicide Prevention Is Our Responsibility