When it comes to the conversation around school safety, gun violence is the topic on everyone’s mind. It’s easy to see why.
In a world where seemingly anyone can walk into a school building and, without warning, take dozens of lives, children and adults are justifiably on edge.
But, while K-12 leaders should continue to implement strategies for reducing gun violence in their schools, recent research shows that the biggest threat to K-12 students may actually be the harm they are causing themselves.
This National Suicide Prevention Week offers a key time for school leaders to reflect on the growing threat of student suicide and self-harm and what they can do to help stem the tide.
Suicides on the rise
In 2017, the suicide rate among teens 15-19 years old reached its highest level in nearly two decades, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (first reported by PBS).
Between 2000 and 2017, the suicide rate among the same age group rose nearly 50 percent, the report’s authors found after studying data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But teens 15-19 years old weren’t the only ones with a spike in self-harm.
According to another CDC report, suicide among children 10-14 years old doubled between 2007 and 2014, as did hospital admissions for students aged 5-17 who had suicidal thoughts or harmed themselves, according to a Vanderbilt University study.
Minorities especially vulnerable
While the rates of suicide among all young people are worrying, K-12 students from specific minority groups are becoming increasingly vulnerable to self-harm.
Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth seriously consider committing suicide nearly three times as much as hetersexual youth and are five times as likely to attempt suicide. That’s according to data from the Trevor Project, which provides crisis support to LGBTQ youth.
African-American youth have also seen a troubling spike in suicides, according to a study in the Journal of Community Health. While African-American males aged 13-19 years old saw a 60 percent increase in suicides between 2000 and 2017, suicides among African-American females of the same age grew by a devastating 182 percent during this period.
Suicides up during school year
It may be easy to jump to conclusions as to the cause of this alarming spike in childhood suicides.
Increased screen time and decreased real-world interactions, social media’s ability to exacerbate bullying outside of the classroom, and increasingly high academic expectations may all play some factor in this alarming trend.
But Dr. Gregory Plemmons, lead researcher on the Vanderbilt University study, tells NBC News it’s hard to pinpoint one direct cause for this sad phenomenon.
“I don’t have any one magic answer that explains why we’re seeing this. We know that anxiety and depression are increasing in young adults as well as adults. I think some people have theorized it’s social media maybe playing a role, that kids don’t feel as connected as they used to be.”
We may not know what exactly is causing increased suicides and self-harm among children, but we do know when it’s happening: during the school year.
“On average, during the eight years included in the study, only 18.5 percent of total annual suicide ideation and suicide attempt encounters occurred during summer months,” Plemmons reports. “Peaks were highest in fall and spring. October accounted for nearly twice as many encounters as reported in July.”
Opening up the conversation about suicide
No matter the cause, it’s clear that K-12 schools must be at the forefront of suicide prevention.
“There is often a tendency in schools to whisper about such unspeakable tragedies,” says Dr. Gerald Dawkins, veteran K-12 superintendent. “And, while tact and common sense are essential, passive leadership is not an option. Schools need to exhaust every possible precaution to prevent students from harming themselves or others.”
Dawkins says there are three critical steps every school leader should take to tackle the suicide crisis head-on.
1. Make suicide prevention part of your district’s health and safety plan.
“Suicide prevention should be built into your school’s safety plan, much like steps for fire or safety drills. Part of that prevention effort should include implementing proactive systems for monitoring potential calls for help, or hints of abuse—both online and offline—and recognizing the signs.”
2. Equip school staff with the latest suicide prevention techniques and information.
“School counselors and other key staff are often your last line of defense. Districts must provide these people with the latest suicide information and preventive techniques to safely guide students through times of self-doubt and personal turmoil.”
3. Focus on parents.
“If school counselors are the last line of prevention, parents are often the first. Few steps are more critical to guarding against student self-harm than engaging parents. When these challenges crop up, they present an opportunity to engage parents in productive dialogues and to outline steps they can take at home to complement precautions and warning signs in place at school.”
If the latest research is any indication, communities across the country will face a spike in youth suicides and attempts this fall. National Suicide Prevention Week is a perfect time for K-12 leaders to start vital conversations with students and parents that will hopefully save lives.
Find out how The School District of Osceola County, Florida implemented Keep Osceola Safe, an online system where students and community members can safely report school safety threats, bullying, and potential self-harm. Click here.