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Tragedy struck Parkland, Fla. again last weekend when two survivors of last year’s horrific school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School took their own lives. As the community grieves yet again, the discussion has turned to student mental health and how educators can help support students when they suffer emotional distress.

Education Week examined the recent events with Christine Moutier, chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and Michael Anestis, associate psychology professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, who both discussed the importance of having difficult discussions with students and parents:

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.”

With a recent Centers for Disease Control study showing that one in five students in the past 12 months has had serious thoughts of suicide (page 24), as well as a Journal of Abnormal Psychology study of federal data that showed a recent sharp increase in depression in young people, recognizing changes in students and helping with the support they need can make all the difference. See the full discussion, resources and curriculum ideas for teaching students about mental health issues.

Additional resources:

Toolkit for Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Know the Signs – California Mental Health Services Authority

California Strategic Plan on Suicide Prevention