The upward trend in suicide reported by the CDC this spring sent shockwaves across the United States. Mental health professionals, teachers, and parents expressed a mixture of anxiety, frustration, and disbelief. The news media covered not one, but two alarming reports. First, the CDC report. Then, another published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Both reports were laden with alarming statistics. What disturbed people most was the dramatic increase in suicide for individuals age 10-17: between 2006 and 2016, suicides for that age group increased by 70%.
That’s not news anyone wants to hear.
As the reports made their way around the country, people began asking – with renewed vigor – the question on everyone’s mind: How can we prevent teen suicide?
A Comprehensive Approach to Mental Health
A school in West Bloomfield, Michigan had a particularly compelling reason to seek an answer to this question. Over the past four years, four of their students took their own lives. The approach the faculty, staff, and students at West Bloomfield High are advocating may surprise some: with overwhelming consensus, they agree it’s not just about suicide.
It’s about the big picture. It’s about teaching students to talk openly and honestly about anger, stress, anxiety, grief, family issues, social media, and relationships – all things that involve serious, disturbing, and uncomfortable emotions which, when left unaddressed, can lead to suicide.
In order to teach students to process these emotions in productive rather than destructive ways, West Bloomfield High took a bold step: they began including a mental health program designed by a school alumnus into their standard health curriculum. The founders of the program, called Prepare U, describe it as an experiential mental health program that focuses on Social and Emotional Learning.
In an interview with the Detroit Free Press, West Bloomfield principal Patrick Watson elaborates on why his school decided to go above and beyond what was required by Michigan state law with regards to mental health education.
“This is easily the most important thing I’ve ever done in education,” he said. “We are finally giving them the tools they need to deal with what life is going to be like.”
Getting It All Out There
The hallmark of the Prepare U program lies in its descriptor: experiential. It’s not a didactic, I’m-the-expert-here, professor lecturing students-type situation. The entire premise revolves around getting students to “share the process of learning about mental health issues.” Sometimes that involves talking openly about their own emotions, whether they’re easy to talk about or not. And whether they talk or not, the program focuses on students’ experience with their emotions and their experience in the moment, in the classroom, rather than a predetermined set of prescriptive how-to’s. Students are required to turn in their phones before sessions so they’re not distracted. Each session has a specific focus, and often begins with an open-ended question. Most parents and teachers know asking a group of teenagers an open-ended question is a recipe for disaster: usually what you get is blank stares and an awkward silence.
However, teachers at West Bloomfield discovered all they had to do was wait.
Soon enough, according to the article, kids start talking. That’s when they begin to understand that other kids are going through the same things they are. The teachers shy away from telling student to do this and do that. They prefer – and the curriculum suggests – offering students several options with regards to coping mechanisms and community support systems they can take advantage of. In that way, each student feels empowered, builds a sense of community, and takes ownership of forming their own, personal array of productive approaches to dealing with difficult emotions and various mental health challenges.
Important First Steps
The CDC and AAP reports shocked the country into facing the problems of suicide and mental health in a more proactive manner than ever before. It’s clear the two issues are inextricably intertwined, and therefore need to be addressed together.
And sooner, rather than later.
The Prepare U curriculum begins in 9th grade. But we think discussions about mental health can begin much earlier. As soon as middle school, and in some cases, earlier. Perhaps not direct talk of suicide, though. Unless immediate personal circumstances, such as a family member committing suicide, requires it. But children of all ages can certainly benefit from learning how to process their emotions.
If young kids learn it’s okay to talk about the tough things, then we’re hopeful. If they learn that asknig for help is a sign of strength, not of weakness, things might change. The next major reports from the CDC and AAP will show the upward trend in teen suicide levelling off in 2016. Then – if we teach our children well, the trend will go back in the direction everyone wants: toward zero.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.