Monday, January 24, 2022

Post-pandemic, the challenges are especially acute in K-12 education

Suicide is a major mental health issue in the United States, and has been exacerbated by the pandemic.  This has been especially acute in K-12 education. The stressors associated with the pandemic, in particular the social isolation, have been overwhelming for many. As often happens with crises like the pandemic, the greatest mental health impact may occur after the crisis, when things appear to be improving.

The latest data indicate that in 2019 there were 47,511 suicides in the United States—that’s one every 11 minutes.  Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-24 year-olds.  (American Association of Suicidology).

Many years ago, I lost a friend to suicide, and an extended family member made multiple attempts, though thankfully never succeeded.  These events made me want to study suicide and try to educate the public and mental health professionals about the issue. Hopefully, this column will provide some useful information about suicide, especially for K-12 educators and school counselors.

It is difficult to predict suicide, though there are a number of factors that appear to increase risk.  Though these will vary by individual, the most important risk factors appear to be:  experiencing violence/victimization; low self-concept; depression; hopelessness; exposure to someone else’s suicide; increased use of alcohol/drugs; being withdrawn; attempting suicide previously; talking about suicide; poor social support; and stress. A previous attempt, depression, poor social support, and hopelessness are of particular importance. The risk factors apply to all individuals, including our K-12 population.

What can we do to prevent suicide, and what should you do if you are concerned about an individual being potentially suicidal? 

  1. We need to encourage schools and communities to provide suicide prevention workshops. These workshops typically focus on risk factors, approaching someone you think may be suicidal, and resources. It is especially important to increase the number of suicide prevention workshops offered in schools, for students, staff, and parents.
  2. We need to reach out proactively to someone if we are worried that they are suicidal. If you are concerned about someone, do not be afraid to ask what we call “the question.” There are many ways to ask this question. For me, “Have you been feeling so badly lately that you’ve thought about harming yourself” works best. The vast majority of people will answer this question honestly, and will appreciate you asking.  They often want permission to talk about their pain.  If you learn the person may be suicidal, it is crucial to provide hope/support, monitor them, consult with a mental health professional, and encourage them to seek treatment.
  3. It is important to be aware of resources.  An important resource is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, reachable 24-7. The number is 800-273-TALK (8255). The American Association of Suicidology also has excellent information. A newly developed outstanding resource is the Iowa Center for School Mental Health.  This center will be invaluable to Iowans. 

Though suicide is a difficult and complex issue, there are steps that we can take to try and lower the suicide rate. By taking these steps, hopefully the suicide rate can be reduced.

John Westefeld is a Board-Certified Psychologist, Suicidologist, and a Professor Emeritus in the College of Education.  He lives in Iowa City. Westefeld is also the recipient of the 2021 University of Iowa Distinguished Faculty Award. Learn more by reading this story and viewing this video package.

Read more from the Annual Report 2021.