The Most Important Thing You Can Do For A Student
As an educator, the most important thing you will ever do for a student has very little to do with teaching. It has to do with saving that student’s life. It’s not about classroom methods, it’s about being there in the right moment to play a part in preventing a suicide.
Suicide can be a difficult subject to discuss. Many have lost someone to suicide. They deserve our compassion. Others fear that they will lose someone to suicide. It is not unreasonable to feel this fear. For some, the subject is couched in shame. This shame can be a powerful motivator to ignore the subject. And the subject is pleasant for no one. But if you are involved with youth at all, I encourage you to be willing to seriously and candidly consider the subject. One of the most profound concepts I've come across regarding our willingness to discuss difficult issues came from Kaelin Hirschi (our Director of Civic Advocacy) in the form of a line from her speech at one of our alumni tournaments- “Silence is stigma.” And suicide among our youth is not a subject we can afford to stigmatize by our silence.
According to the CDC, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death for the U.S. population as a whole, but is the third leading cause of death for the age group 10-14, and the second leading cause of death for age groups 15-24 and 25-34. In addition, the most recent state level data from the CDC demonstrates that Utah and Arizona (two areas of particular concern for the WIDL), have the 6th and 13th highest age adjusted suicide rates in the United States. Data about suicide in the homeschooling community is scarce just as data about almost any element of the homeschooling community is scarce. But it has been my full time employment to teach in this community now for well over a decade and in that time I have taught a large number of students from different elements of the homeschooling community. You can believe me when I say that our community is not exempt from dealing with this difficult issue. Every single year I work with several students who confide that they are dealing with suicidal thoughts. And based upon disclosures that happen after the fact every year, I also work with a number of students who are dealing with suicidal thoughts who do not confide in me, and unfortunately, in many cases they do not confide in anyone.
And that is the point- in the ideal circumstances a student would have many people around them in whom they would feel comfortable confiding. But silence and shame are often so wrapped up in suicidal thoughts that suicidal students very often have a tough time sharing with anyone. This is why anyone who works with youth can have a critical role to play in preventing suicide.
I would like to devote the remainder of this article to concrete steps we can take as teachers to play that crucial role for the distressed student in the right moment.
Being a teacher in which a student can confide
Every class I teach, I take the first ten minutes or so to ask students about what happened during the week, to joke with them about what they say, to tell them the interesting things going on in my life, and to generally chat with my students. I know that some students wonder at the value of the practice or maybe think it's a waste of time, but it serves a couple of meaningful purposes. First, I just had to accept at some point that I could teach in the homeschooling community, and I could have students in my class on time, but I wasn’t going to get both. So I figured that I might as well use the first ten minutes meaningfully.
The second is the more important issue. I want to know about my students. I want to know their interests, I want to understand their family dynamics, I want to know what they want to talk about, I want to know how they see life, and, just as importantly, I want them to know that I want to know these things. Perhaps it may seem that ten minutes a week isn’t much time to get to know kids, and maybe it isn’t. But I generally see it as ten of the most productive minutes I spend in any class. As students get more and more comfortable they tell me about the death of loved ones, fights with friends, medical troubles, all sorts of things you wouldn’t expect in a casual chat. More importantly, the temperature in the room changes when students come to believe that you are interested in their lives.
I also have students write a semester reflection at the end of each semester. I invite them to tell me what they have learned about the class and how they would grade themselves, but I also invite them to tell me what they have learned about themselves, the challenges they have had to overcome, and what things they want to change. In these papers, students have confided even more personal difficulties. Low self image, depression, anxiety, abuse, loneliness. After tournaments, I ask students to tell me what they learned and try to leave it open ended. They mostly tell me that they found out that they need to speak more confidently, but sometimes they tell me that they discovered that they had been holding back because they were scared of what it might mean if they actually tried and then lost. When I’m concerned about a student, I try to find moments to ask them how they are doing. And sometimes they tell me that they are fine, but sometimes they tell me that they feel like they can’t talk to their mom or that they feel like they don’t have any friends.
All of these, and other strategies work for me. And maybe they do or would work for you too. But it doesn’t really matter if you employ these or any particular strategy. What matters is how you answer these questions- Do your students know that you are interested in them beyond their academic achievement? If you teach english or history do your students know that you want more for them than to learn to write or to analyze the past? Do they know that you want them to learn to be whole and happy? Because if they do, when the moment comes that they need to confide in someone and they can’t think of anyone else, chances are that that someone will be you. And, when it comes down to it, it seems to me that this is at the core of teaching. Teaching isn’t just a thing that you do. It’s a way that you are. It’s a way that you see the world. More importantly, it’s the way that you see people.
Speaking of the way that we see people, whether or not you see students, or certain segments of students, with contempt matters. It matters a lot. I’ll put this plainly. LGBTQ youth ideate, plan, and attempt suicide approximately four times more than average youth. My personal experience confirms for me that LGBTQ youth are more at risk as well. My personal experience also indicates to me that these youth are often among those who would have the hardest time talking to a parent about their distress and could really use a teacher to help bridge that gap. And if you teach any sizable number of students for any significant amount of time, then the fact is that you teach LGBTQ youth.
So, as a teacher, we have choices. We can use words like “gay”, “dike”, or “fag” as an insult, we can joke about boys being effeminate, and we can act disgusted or outraged at the mention of transgender people. We can also choose to be the sort of teacher that at risk youth are willing to confide in. But we don’t get to choose both. Students watch you. They pay attention. Will they believe that you think they are a disgusting joke or that you think they are humans with as much inherent value as anyone?
And here I’ll note that I’m not talking about moral or religious judgments about life choices or lifestyles. I’m just talking about being humane, recognizing that all of our students need good teachers, and wanting to see all of our students stay alive.
I’ll also note that similar principles apply to a variety of issues. Making an earnest attempt to take a humane attitude toward all people regardless of how much you may disagree with them on any political issue, what their religious position is, or any other differences there may be between them and you is what makes people worth confiding in. People confide in people who are humane, compassionate, and loving.
In the moment
I expect that most readers will find the section above intuitive (teachers teach for a reason), but it can be more difficult to know what to do when you have reason to suspect that a student is feeling suicidal. On several occasions I have been lucky enough to receive a training called QPR. The training outlines three simple steps to take in that circumstance. I’ll dedicate the remainder of the article to those steps, but I also encourage anyone who has the opportunity to be formally trained in QPR to please take the opportunity.
Let’s imagine that you encounter these or like circumstances-
A student manifests a sudden change in personality
A student seems to consistently struggle and function
Student performance suddenly and drastically drops off
A student confides that he or she is struggling with his or her mental health
A student jokes about suicide
A student engages in any other behavior that makes you wonder if the student is safe
A more in depth discussion of indicators can be found here.
If this is the case, then it is time to start directly asking the student what is going on. Asking a student if he or she is feeling suicidal can be uncomfortable. It can feel like you are imposing on the student, that you are assuming too much, or that you are even doing something dangerous. The reality is that you are doing something normal and beneficial for the student. Asking about suicidal tendencies does not increase the chances that a person will commit suicide. In fact “acknowledging and talking about suicide may in fact reduce, rather than increase suicidal ideation, and may lead to improvements in mental health in treatment-seeking populations.” (quote from the link above). If you are wrong and a student is not experiencing suicidal thoughts, then you can let them know that you are pleased to hear it, that you asked because you care about them, and then you can go on your way knowing that you have reduced the stigma of the issue by refusing to shroud it in silence. And if you aren’t the person that a student is willing to confide in, then in all likelihood they will lie to you and go on their way.
The actual phrasing of such a sensitive question can be difficult. Personally, I find it easier to ask easier questions first, and then more difficult questions later as necessary. For example-
Based on what you’ve said/what I’ve noticed I am wondering if you find yourself feeling depressed or just sad?
Has it ever gotten bad enough that you have had thoughts about harming yourself?
Have the thoughts of self harm ever gotten to the point that you have thought about taking your own life?
Have you gotten to the point that you have actually envisioned taking your own life?
Have you ended up making a plan to end your life?
Have you gathered materials or made arrangements that would enable you to carry out that plan?
Have you made any attempts to carry out such a plan?
In the case of youth it is also important to ask “How much do your parents know about how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking?”
Yes, these can be hard questions to ask. But, your willingness to endure a few minutes of discomfort can be what uncovers the pain that someone is facing and gets them the help that they need to stay alive.
Should a student confide that he or she is experiencing suicidal thoughts the first thing to do is to express empathy and care for the student, and then the next action to take is to persuade. Specifically to persuade the student of three things.
That their situation is not hopeless because there are concrete (if not easy) measures that can be taken to help them deal with the pain they experience.
Those measures begin with involving the adults in their life (particularly parents) as a support system.
That they should seek out competent professional counseling because it can and does positively impact the lives of people dealing with suicidal tendencies.
In my experience, students who haven’t already talked to parents are usually resistant to the idea
that their parents should know that they are having suicidal thoughts. They often claim that their parents are too busy, that they don’t want to worry them, that it would just be a burden, or that their parents won’t believe them. It is important to emphasize to these students that parents have an obligation to take care of their children and to take their problems seriously, and that children do not have an obligation to take care of their parents. Also that their parents are the only people in their lives who are close enough and have enough power to keep them safe in critical moments and have the resources to secure for them professional medical treatments (meaning that telling trusted friends or other adults may be a good idea, but just isn’t enough.). It is important to reassure students that their parents would want to know what they are going through.
It is also critical that you inform the student’s parents of your conversation. Some would be concerned that this would be a breach of trust, but there are secrets worth keeping and secrets not worth keeping, and this is a secret not worth keeping. Besides, it isn’t a breach of trust if you have not promised not to tell parents, which you should not do anyway. Parents deserve to know and children need their parents’ help.
And a quick note for any students who are reading this, the same is true for you. A friend contemplating ending their life is not a secret worth keeping. Keeping that to yourself is the opposite of being a good friend.
Moving on, persuading students and parents that professional counseling can offer them hope is a particularly good idea because it is true! Not every counselor is right for every person, and counseling isn’t magic that will make everything better immediately, but study after study after study concludes that therapy has significant, measurable, life improving effects (just as a sample, this APA resolution cites over fifty peer reviewed studies quantifying the beneficial effects of therapy). On a personal level, I am happy to report that therapy has had a major positive impact on my life and has personally helped me deal with suicidal thoughts. The same is true for my wife (I share this with permission) and for a number of other people close to me.
Students are often resistant to the idea that they should seek out professional counseling because of the silence and stigma around counseling. They aren’t that type of person. They’re not broken or defective. Things aren’t that bad (imagine the irony of someone contemplating ending their life telling you that things aren’t really so bad that they need help). But there is nothing broken or defective about needing professional help. People don’t need therapy because of a moral defect any more than people need medical care because of a moral defect. For some reason our society has an undercurrent of belief that if people were morally or spiritually whole, then they wouldn’t be depressed, have anxiety, struggle with mental health, or experience suicidal thoughts. So the best option is to not admit (even to themselves) that they have problems so no one can know (even themselves) that they are morally or spiritually defective.
I disagree entirely. I do not feel defective because I have been benefited by professional counseling. And I have never met the student who I respected less because they struggle with mental health issues. Depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and other struggles with mental health are caused by complex biological and environment factors. “You’re just a bad person who has brought shame upon yourself and shame upon your family” is thankfully not one of them.
The final step in aiding a suicidal student is to refer the student and/or the student’s parents to specific resources that can offer help. If the student has progressed to the point that they have a plan on which they are ready to act, then that means doing whatever you have to deliver the student into the custody of their parents safely and informing the parents of the critical nature of the situation.
Otherwise, if parents and students are not sure where to start looking for help, the following resources can be helpful.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1-800-273-8255 (phone call or text)
https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ (online chat available, also has suggested resources for a variety of circumstances)
833-372-3388 (phone call or text)
https://safeut.org/ (online chat available, also has option to download app)
Utah Psychological Association Directory
https://utpsych.org/directory (searchable directory of psychologists in UT)
Teen Lifeline (teen specific suicide prevention in Arizona)
602-248-8336 (phone call or text inside Maricopa County)
1-800-248-8336 (phone call or text outside Maricopa County)
https://teenlifeline.org/ (more information available)
Many religious congregations have tie ins to services (including LDS Family services)
Guide on finding low cost or subsidized counseling in UT
Same for Arizona
Seeking out a referral from someone who has had a positive experience can also be a great approach.
I’ve lost two students to suicide. I think about them and remind myself that I never want any student to whom I could offer aid to ever go without my help. That commitment has landed me in some awkward conversations, some difficult to navigate situations, and I must admit that I haven’t always played my part as a teacher perfectly. But walking away from the issue so that I don’t have to take those risks is not an alternative that I’m willing to accept. The children we have in our homeschooling community are beautiful. They all deserve to live. They deserve the help they need to live happy and productive lives. They deserve to have adults around them who are willing to talk candidly about suicide, to take the issue seriously, and to work to prevent it. I’m committed to being one of those adults. I offer a sincere invitation to be in that group as well. We must frankly face the fact that we may not be able to save every child. But I am certain that together we can make a difference for the children who need us.