School Counselors’ Impact on Suicide Prevention
Content warning: This blog post discusses sensitive topics related to mental health and suicide. If you need support, know that you’re not alone. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 via phone: 1-800-273-8255.
In 2019 we saw the first decrease in suicide rates since 1998. That’s the good news. But you would probably not be surprised to learn that the story was different in 2020. While it’s too soon to get the data for suicide rates, the CDC reports hospitals saw a significant uptick in the number of children under 18 admitted for mental health emergencies in the past year. Suicide attempts have skyrocketed, more than double the numbers in 2019.
What can schools do about youth suicide?
Distance learning during COVID-19 has created plenty of challenges for schools — and managing students’ mental health emergencies, including suicide ideation, is one of the most sensitive and complex. Not being able to see students in person and interact with them “as usual” has undoubtedly been hard for school staff and students. But people who work in schools find creative solutions to problems, and many school employees have found ways to safely stay connected with students during the pandemic. School counselors are a wonderful example.
Districts that use tools like health management software to track mental and behavioral health have an advantage. They can quickly review a student’s health history and take appropriate action when needed. Documenting interactions is one way to keep tabs on students who may be struggling.
Know the past to shape the future
This is a story about Maria, a middle school counselor who works for a large district in Texas. She believes that using a mental and behavioral health tracking tool with diligence makes a tremendous difference in how schools can support their students. Maria feels certain that having mental health history available at her fingertips saves lives.
Here’s why. Maria met with a new 6th grader for the first time because the student was experiencing suicidal ideation. The child had hit another student. When the teacher told her she had to go to the office, the girl responded by saying she was going to kill herself.
Maria knew nothing about this child, having never met her before. But she logged into the school health tracking system and, within minutes, saw the entire health history from the elementary feeder school. This student had a mother who was incarcerated for killing her husband, the girl’s father. The child also had a history of depression, anger management issues, had been in and out of foster care, and obviously was unstable as a result of the trauma she had experienced.
During the time it took for the student to calm down in her office, Maria was able to read the student’s entire mental health history. With that background information, she knew how to interact with the child. Maria knew what to say and what not to say to her, because she knew what set the child off.
Health records showed that the elementary school counselor had referred this student for outside counseling. Thanks to having access to that information in the mental health tracking system, Maria knew who to contact to help the child. She also knew not to try calling the girl’s mother.
Maria can share story after story about her students and how valuable having their health records is to her as a counselor. A 9th grader she worked with for three years was known to be at risk for suicide. She had attempted several times, even though she had a psychiatrist and was on medication. Before the student’s first year of high school started, the school counselors had a heads up about her background along with her entire health history because of the health tracking system. They had a foundation to start building a relationship with her; they knew what worked and what didn’t, who to call, who not to call, and what behaviors and reactions were most common for her.
Then there’s the girl who was sent to see the counselor because a teacher overheard the child talking about suicide. Maria pulled up her Columbia suicide risk assessment and saw that she had ranked low to moderate the previous week. With that information, Maria had access not only to baseline data, but she could see the trajectory the student was on. She also learned that the girl was prone to self-harm, that her home was dysfunctional, and that she’d been bounced back and forth between mom and dad while they were in the middle of an ugly divorce. That background knowledge helped Maria connect with that child because she already knew so much about her.
Mental health tracking is saving kids’ lives because school counselors and other school perosnnel document so many important details. That includes data about who is at risk for suicide, when they’ve attempted, and whether they have a psychiatrist or an outside counseling agency involved. Suicide Risk Assessment records can be uploaded and kept on file. Any counselor meeting with a student has access to all records.
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Overcome barriers with information
That information is also critical during school closures happening because of the pandemic. If a student contacts the counseling department through a virtual Zoom room, any counselor can read those notes, see the student’s history, and reach out to help.
Some students, while not suicidal, have severe mental health disorders. Maria remembers one little girl who was on anti-psychotic medication. She had a psychiatrist and a therapist, but those people were in her life once a week or once a month. As the school counselor, Maria saw the girl every few days. The mother signed a release so Maria could send reports to the therapist and confer with him to discuss the student’s behavior. The psychiatrists used that information to gauge how well the student’s medication was working and monitor her treatment.
Collaborating with outside mental health agencies provides far more support for those students than schools can offer alone. The mental health tracking and documentation system cannot be underestimated because school counselors see those students more than any outside mental health professional will ever see them unless they’re hospitalized.
“Collaborating with outside mental health agencies provides far more support for those students than schools can offer alone.”
Be the voice to advocate for mental health parity
School counselors like Maria have become advocates for mental health parity. Deeply concerned about the adolescent and preadolescent mental health crisis in their communities, they are sounding the alarm. Advocacy can pay off. Using their data, school counselors convinced decision makers of the need for mental health care at the district level and in Maria’s community. Advocacy for high-needs children contributed to opening a new Children’s Services unit for mental illness and behavioral health at the local center for health care services.
Maria encourages all counselors to be active members of their state School Counseling Associations. They must voice their concerns and write their representatives at the state and national level to lobby for better mental health. Why bother? Because that’s the business they’re in. They’re helping to improve mental health support for parents and their children. Those children will grow up to be parents themselves. Mentally healthy children have a better quality of life and can become productive, responsible, law-abiding citizens.