The unbeknownst school day suicide connection

Sometimes the clues and answers are so obvious, we never put them together.

Earlier this year an emergency pediatric psychiatrist created a “heat map.” Unfortunately, it had nothing to do with extra greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and everything to do with pediatric (17 years of age or younger) deaths by suicide.

IT SADLY MAKES SENSE

She used the CDC’s Wonder database to find information on this not surprising data. The results were numbing and yet, sadly enough, made all the sense in the world. On weekdays and during school months, there is a significant elevation of suicide deaths in children.

Looking at the monthly data, the elevation is not trivial: during school months, the increase in pediatric suicides ranges between 30 and 43 percent. This is in sharp contrast with adults, where we see suicide rates typically peak in summer months.

Pediatricians, child psychologists and psychiatrists, social workers and pediatric emergency teams know something that many people who care for children don’t: they are much busier during the school year.

SHOCKED, REALLY?

When presented in this manner, I’m sure parents, teachers, principals and school administrators must be shocked when you would think it would be so obvious.

School comes with many things, good and bad. School can be wonderful, with learning experiences, social successes and a sense of connection to others. But it is also incredibly stressful (non-snowflake stuff) because of academic burden, bullying, health-and disability-related barriers, discrimination, lack of sleep and sometimes abuse.

TREAT IT LIKE A FULL-TIME JOB

During my Student Success Project presentations I emphasize being a student is a full-time job, and they are CEO of their brand. The student has co-workers (classmates arranged by hierarchy), supervisors (teachers), senior staff (administrators and principals) and overtime (homework). And they have very early work hours (most schools have hours that are very incompatible with children’s sleep patterns). Of course, work can be rewarding, but it’s also extremely stressful.

Yet, for as obvious as the data is – you would think some equally obvious “immediate solutions” would at least begin the mitigation process. Here are some of mine:

SOME IMMEDIATE COMMON SENSE SOLUTIONS

● Reduce homework. Some of the best educational science available shows that excessive homework is of limited benefit and in fact harms children’s health and well-being.

● Add a REAL mental health curriculum. We have developed incredible educational goals for math, reading, science and the arts. Let’s do the same for a much more universal and necessary learning: how to take care of yourself; look out for and help others; and improve both the detection and prevention of mental health crises.

● Take bullying MUCH MORE seriously and don’t just focus on the bullies. The bullied tend to be internalizers, the bullies are more often externalizers. Bullies who were once victims of bullying have the highest risk of having psychiatric problems in the future.

● Start school later. How many more decades of research do we need to show that children need more sleep and that adolescents do better in school when the day starts later? It’s time to make serious structural changes to the early-morning wake-up times.

● Be nonjudgmental and respect children’s identity and identity formation. This is not a “woke” concept. This is a caring, compassionate concept that works for all children all the time.

● Recognize and address child abuse within schools. There exist teachers who are abusive, punitive and cruel. In one 2018 study, 44 percent of undergraduates recalled a time in K–12 school that they labeled as emotional abuse by a teacher. And in another study published in 2019, 3.4 percent of seventh- and eighth-grade students reported teachers bullied them.

The student mental health crisis is an everyday real time life or death situation. Until treated as such it must be remembered that waiting for weekends as well as winter, spring and summer break is not a suicide prevention strategy.

This column is by Ritchie Lucas, Founder of The Student Success Project and Think Factory Consulting. He can be reached by email at ritchie@thinkfactory.com and on Facebook and You Tube as The Student Success Project.

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