Student mental health was already on the minds of educators, but the need for vigilance has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say.
Risk factors such as disconnecting with friends, decreased activities and the loss of a loved one to COVID can have a severe negative impact on students, especially those living in unstable households, said mental health experts.
“Especially if this family component is not strong or if there are problems within the family, now they are living more there and they have no escape,” said Tracy Klingener, director of services. suicide prevention for the Mental Health Association. of Essex and Morris (MHAEM). “Sometimes going to school is the most stable environment they have.”
On Thursday morning, a 90-minute online suicide prevention forum brought together school nurses, guidance counselors, administrators and other educators from nearly every district in Sussex County. Led by Klingener and Carrie Parmelee, coordinator of MHAEM’s Intensive Family Support Services program, participants received advice on how to identify warning signs and reduce the threat of student suicide.
The meeting was hosted by Lafayette School Superintendent Jennifer Cenatiempo, who met with Klingener and Parmelee on a call with the Sussex County Superintendents Roundtable Association.
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The two mental health professionals presented the MHAEM Signs of Suicide (SOS) program implemented in several schools in the area during the Superintendent’s call. Cenatiempo, a passionate advocate for student welfare, wanted a broader platform for Sussex County educators to gain valuable information on reducing the risk of student suicide.
“I thought to myself, rather than having small groups of three or four repeat this message in a neighborhood, why not get everyone together and do it once? Said Cenatiempo. “We had up to 37 people on appeal during that hour and a half. That’s 37 more people who will now pass on the turnkey information to their respective quarters.”
Parmelee told educators to watch out for “sayings,” things children say or write that may bring up the topic of suicide without explicitly mentioning it. They may express feelings of pain or hopelessness in addition to behavioral problems such as alcohol or drug use and sleeping too much or not at all.
“These messages can be very vague or direct,” Parmelee said. “The contents of these tell contain messages about this, and it could be a clue, it could be a cry for help.”
The forum also included examples of what not to say to a student with suicidal thoughts. For example, saying “everything will be fine” can be seen as downplaying a child’s hardship, while telling them to think about how family members would feel if they kill themselves can lead to additional guilt.
Instead, Klingener and Parmelee suggested simple phrases like “We care about you” or “You are not alone” as safer alternatives that recognize a student’s problems without downplaying or exacerbating them.
While psychologists often focus on parents when offering advice for preventing child suicide, Klingener pointed out that school staff normally spend several hours around students each day and would therefore receive the same training. .
Klingener also pointed out that the students themselves are “the most underutilized resource” when it comes to the mental health of their peers. She recalled a visit to the school where she asked a group of a dozen students to raise their hands if they would feel comfortable telling a parent they were thinking of the suicide.
Only one hand was raised.
“I think it really shows the importance of what Carrie and I are doing, and really educating our kids on what to look for in their friends and how to start a conversation,” Klingener said.
Klingener and Parmelee said they were optimistic Thursday’s forum would benefit Sussex County students over time. The two experts noted that local districts are strongly committed to reducing the stigma surrounding mental health, not only among educators but in the wider community.
“It takes a village and we all play a role in suicide prevention,” Klingener said. “The more we educate, the more likely we are to save lives.”
Anyone struggling with thoughts of suicide can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or text 741741.