The sirens are blaring and the lights are flashing – are schools paying attention?
Article after article is warning us of a dangerous trend: adolescent anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation is rising:
- Starting in April 2020, emergency room visits for mental health concerns are up 31% for 12-17 year olds (1).
- 56% of teens report knowing someone that has considered self-harm or suicide (2).
- Las Vegas has seen teen suicides double in less than a school year (3).
All this is happening right in front of us, but our schools are struggling to adequately address it. In fact, only 32% of teens believe their school is prepared to handle this issue (2). And only 36% of teens indicate they know who to call and where to report a threat (2).
Dr. Sean Joe, from Washington University, reports “All that complicated grief that’s been occurring, that’s what will hit America in the next year to 24 months,” he says. “And that’s what we have to watch out for. That we don’t have a behavioral health crisis following this Covid crisis and nobody’s preparing for it” (4).
But, that isn’t completely true. The potential epidemic of teen suicides that may be approaching isn’t inevitable. We can prevent it and Erika’s Lighthouse is working towards that goal through classroom education, teen empowerment, family engagement and school policy & staff development.
Preventing these tragedies will require our school communities: administrators, educators, students and parents to address the issue head-on. We can begin the critical work of supporting school staff, teens and their families by making resources available. We can also reach out to children, teens and families who are struggling with mental health challenges.
Classroom Education can help prepare teens to not only help themselves, but their peers who may be struggling. Understanding anxiety, depression and suicide along with help-seeking skills can guide teens to trusted adults that can connect them to help and support. These are tough times, and developing a sense of resilience is key. All teens can learn coping strategies and good mental health behaviors to better support themselves and others.
Teen Empowerment can normalize mental illness, promote positive conversations by reducing stigma and help identify where students can go if they are struggling. Talking openly with others can in itself, be of enormous help.
Family Engagement can assist in reducing stigma at home. All parents want their children to do well. A first step is to reduce the barriers teens so often feel when asking for help. Parents can begin by creating a secure, responsive, supportive, environment at home.
As for schools, there is so much which can be done. School Policy and Staff Development initiatives focused upon mental health and wellness can provide a strong foundation for a supportive, caring, school environment. Many child development and public health experts talk of “changing the culture of our schools” such that they are more inclusive and responsive, such that no child or teen feels alone in their depression or anxiety. This begins with teachers, coaches, and staff. Our programs ensure that all staff understand these principles and have tools to bring positive mental health practices to their school.
The pandemic has been challenging and, unfortunately, more difficulties lay ahead. That said, we do not have to be hopeless and helpless. Instead, we can be proactive to ensure our children and teens are resilient and supported.
Brandon Combs, Executive Director at Erika’s Lighthouse
Peggy Kubert, LCSW, Sr. Director of Education at Erika’s Lighthouse
Mark Reinecke, PhD., ABPP, ACT, Professional Advisory Board Member at Erika’s Lighthouse