I tour nationally speaking in schools about bullying, teen suicide, teen depression, drug and alcohol abuse, cutting, and other cheery subjects. When it comes to teen suicide and depression, sometimes I get… depressed. We are dropping the ball.
I recently presented at a high school that suffered a suicide last year. They brought me in to address bullying as well as the self-harming behaviors that often result from it: cutting, eating disorders, and suicidal ideation. I hung out with the kids before and after the assemblies, walked the halls, ate lunch with them, and chilled in the commons area. There was not one sign, poster, bulletin board, flyer, or messaging of any type present that informed the students where to go, or who to call, text, or message if they need help with self harming behaviors. Not one.
I find this same absurd situation in school after school I perform in. “We just sent our guidance counselors to California to attend a suicide prevention conference,” the principal in Georgia says. I look around the office and hallways: no signs. “All our teachers have taken a course on how to recognize when a teenager may be suicidal,” the guidance counselor says. I look around the guidance office and classrooms: no signs that tell the students where to go if they are hurting. “I’ve just completed a course on how to interact with a child that approaches me with self-harming behavior,” the school resource officer tells me. I look at the door to his office, the halls around school, everywhere on campus. There are no signs anywhere to tell the students that the officer is interested in their cutting problem. None.
This has always been one of the great challenges to teen health education in America: the glaring gap that can occur between theory and practice. School districts throughout America have responded courageously to the teen suicide epidemic. Armies of principals, teachers, and particularly guidance counselors have attended workshops, conferences, and classes on teen suicide prevention. The problem is that the kids don’t seem to have any idea that this is happening.
We are getting trained to deal with them and not letting them know we are trained to deal with them. I have asked principals about the lack of signage in their schools that directs students to help if they are suffering from suicidal ideation, cutting, eating disorders, or any other form of self harm. I always seem to get a variation of the same answer, “They know they can see the guidance counselor about that.” Or “They know they can come to me.”
Do they? Have you told them? Teens don’t know that drinking and driving might be a bad idea and they don’t know that having sex in the back seat of a car behind McDonalds is a bad idea. They can do calculus but have a hard time figuring out that texting a naked picture of themselves might not be in their best interests. So you expect that the teen hiding in the bathroom making herself throw up knows she can go see the guidance counselor the next morning and not be judged? Students don’t know where they can go to get help. We think they know, but they don’t. Because we are adults and, quite literally, our brains work differently than theirs. A lot of tragedy could be avoided it we understood that teens don’t fully understand what we think they understand.
There needs to be a large sign that all the kids pass in the main hallway, “Feeling like hurting yourself? Come by Mrs. Jones room, or call or text 123-123-1234.” It’s that simple. I believe there may be another more subtle reason for the sparsity of signs. The stigma and mystery that surrounds mental illness will not allow some people to put a beacon of hope up in their schools. We don’t want to admit that our students may be contemplating suicide, cutting, or any other self harming behaviors. If we don’t acknowledge it, it isn’t there. We’ll send our counselors to a workshop for three days. But a sign that we will have to look at every day that reminds us of the uncomfortable precipice many of our students may be hanging over, no we’re not going to do that. That’s not happening here and I don’t want to look at a sign every day that indicates it might.
Well, hurting kids are out there. You can put up a sign, or deal with the trauma a suicide will cause in your community. You can put up signage in your school that tells the kids exactly where to go, who to call, who to text to get help for self harming behaviors, or watch the ambulance pull away.Keith Deltano is an award winning educator and educational comedian. You can learn more about his anti bullying and suicide prevention assemblies for high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools at www.DontBullyOnline.com