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February 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 5
Interview

How “Seizing the Awkward” Can Help Students in Crisis

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    Teachers and school leaders aren’t therapists, says mental health expert Tony Walker. But they can be lifelines for students in crisis.

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    How “Seizing the Awkward” Can Help Students in Crisis
    Credit: Photo courtesy of Tony Walker
      Youth suicide rates were on the rise even before the pandemic began. Then things only got worse. At a time when so many students are struggling emotionally, how can educators respond? We turned to mental health expert Tony Walker for answers. Walker is senior vice president of academic programs for the Jed Foundation (JED), a nonprofit dedicated to teen suicide prevention. He leads JED Campus and the JED High School program, which provides schools and districts with technical assistance and resources to support student mental health, reduce substance misuse, and prevent suicide. Walker is a former teacher, school counselor, and district administrator. Before his current role, he served as a vice president at the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute in Dallas, where he contributed to statewide policy on mental health for more than 1,200 school districts.

      What common myths are perpetuated in schools about suicide?

      There are many different myths out there—and in my experience, they can vary from school to school, person to person, and context to context. That being said, I have certainly seen instances where schools aren’t fully confident about how to address mental health concerns or suicide—or there’s this idea that it’s not a school’s job or an educator’s place to address such topics. So for those reasons, they don’t. But as a former educator and now a leader in the school mental health space, I know it takes all of us—caregivers, friends, community members, teachers, education leaders—to come together to prevent suicide.
      So, one of the first myths I would name is the idea that there isn’t much that a school can do. That’s not true. There’s a lot that a school can do, things that research has informed us can make a significant impact. One thing, for example, is preventative work, which is instrumental in protecting young people. We also know that when schools and districts build truly comprehensive systems of mental health support, students have increased positive mental health outcomes. They also have better academic outcomes.
      There is a second important misconception around psychological contagion. We sometimes hear there’s worry that if schools talk about suicide, particularly after there’s been a death by suicide, that it will trigger a cluster of suicides among the student body. While of course it can be triggering for anyone to lose someone to suicide and there can be a risk for suicidal ideation, we know from research that talking about it and doing responsible postvention work really makes a key difference in decreasing the likelihood of negative mental health impacts and suicide. So, that whole thing around psychological contagion doesn’t really hold up in terms of the evidence.

      What steps can educators take to better identify students who are struggling with serious mental health issues?

      Know the signs to look out for and really internalize them as an educator. One of the biggest signs is withdrawal. A student withdraws from things that they used to enjoy doing, or they used to participate in class and turn in all their homework assignments and then suddenly there’s a significant behavior change and they’re not. They used to be involved in student activities, they used to be very social with their friends, now they’re not. Those are the types of behavioral changes that I would always say educators should be on the lookout for.
      The other thing would be changes in eating or sleeping behaviors. If teachers have reason to suspect any sort of alcohol or drug use, they can look for neglect of things like personal appearance. If you notice real physical changes in the way that a student is showing up in class, their lack of responsiveness to praise, sadness, crying spells, general perception of hopelessness, or even obsession with death or dying, there’s reason for concern. So, for example, a student is doing journaling activities in class and they start writing a lot about dying or they write about suicide. All of these things can be indicators of potential suicide.
      And then I would say to check in with young people when you think they’re not OK. Sometimes, this can seem scary and uncomfortable, but it doesn’t have to be. Checking in can be as simple as pulling a student aside and saying, “Hey, I’ve noticed that you seem a little down lately. Can you tell me what’s going on? Are you OK? I’m here if you want to talk about anything.” Just being intentional about making that type of connection is really important.
      We have a campaign at the Jed Foundation [with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and in collaboration with the Ad Council] called Seize the Awkward. The entire focus of the campaign is encouraging young people to lean into the awkward moments and the discomfort of asking friends who they’re concerned about if they’re OK. This can apply to educators, too.

      Check in with young people when you think they’re not OK. Sometimes, this can seem scary and uncomfortable, but it doesn’t have to be.

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      If a student confides in a teacher or a trusted adult that they’re experiencing suicidal thoughts, how should that adult respond in the moment?

      The first thing I would say is to stay calm. Students’ moods will oftentimes mirror that of the adult that they’re talking to. The last thing that we want is for an adult to get nervous and anxious when what they’re being given is information and trust. I would also say that educators should never promise a student that they will keep something a secret. Because that’s not going to be the case, especially if there’s an outcry of potential suicide or self-harm.
      When having these conversations, I would always encourage educators to ask for additional information. If a student comes to you and says that they’re experiencing thoughts of suicide, it’s OK to say, “Wow, thank you so much for telling me this. I’m so sorry to hear that you’re feeling so bad. Do you think about this a lot? Do you have a plan?” Asking a few follow-up questions is going to be really helpful to better understand the potential risk and sense of urgency that they’re facing. Even if you just ask one question—“Are you thinking about suicide?”—that’s really important. Research shows that when someone asks that question directly, the likelihood of a person following through with suicide goes down.
      That being said, it’s not a teacher’s job to be a therapist. This has to be escalated to follow the school’s procedure. And hopefully there is a school counselor that’s available to help, or there’s a certain process in place to make sure that students are getting the support they need. I think it’s also really important to let students know that they’ve been heard and that you care. We should never dismiss their feelings or say things like, “But you have so much to live for.” Instead, it’s more just recognizing and validating a student’s emotions and then ultimately referring them to professional help.

      Is there anything else educators should know about handling a crisis?

      First, if a student makes an outcry of potentially being suicidal, you should never leave them alone. If you’re referring them to the school counselor, you or another trusted adult should walk them over to the counselor’s office. You can offer to make an introduction personally to that counselor and if a student is like “No, I don’t want you to do that,” then you need to just take it upon yourself as an educator to go ahead and inform the school counselor anyway and explain to the student why you’re doing that. But make sure that they’re not being left alone in the process.
      Second, make sure that a student doesn’t have access to lethal means right in front of them. This is particularly important if a student seems like they may be at high risk, to make sure that they are actually in a physically safe environment while they’re waiting for that professional help. I mean, it could be any object that could be potentially dangerous. So, for example, scissors or tools or something else that might be found in a classroom. I once had a student in a counseling session tell me that they were going to jump out of the third story window; I had another student tell me that they were going to throw themselves down a flight of stairs. So, these are very real physical risks that educators should be aware of.

      Do you have any advice for working with parents who aren’t supportive of mental health treatment or maybe aren’t taking their child’s threats seriously?

      I think in my entire education career, I can only recall a handful of times when a parent was not supportive. But it does happen. I would recommend just trying to lean into relationships with parents and to lean into open and honest conversations with them. It’s really important to address the concerns that a school or educator has about a student and to be very direct with parents when naming those concerns.
      It’s also important for the school to acknowledge that this can be very shocking and difficult news for a parent to hear, especially if they have no idea their child might be feeling that way. So, make sure to take that into account.
      I think also what’s sometimes missed is the follow-up. Typically, a school counselor or principal sits down with the parent after a student’s outcry, they explain the situation, they provide counseling referrals, they encourage the parent to take their child to go get help, but then what? There needs to be very intentional follow-up on the part of the school to make sure that the parent took action and got the student the help and support they needed.
      Worst case scenario, if a student has demonstrated that they are at serious risk of suicide and the school has reason to believe that a parent is not following up adequately, it may be necessary for the school to contact child protective services to make sure that someone else is checking in on the safety and well-being of the child. This is clearly not going to help the relationship between the parent and the school and certainly should be used as a last resort. But at the end of the day, the priority is the safety of the child.

      Is there anything you want to add?

      There’s just one thing that I think is worth mentioning. We know from research that not all students are at the same risk of mental health issues. Equitable implementation in terms of school mental health services really matters. For example, populations of young adults may face different and often additive challenges due to bias, racism, microaggressions, financial disparities, or other social determinants of health. We know that our LGBTQ+ youth are sometimes four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers. So, it’s really important that educators have that type of information as they are planning programs and services, to ensure that they’re building and developing interventions that will work for all students, and really focusing on the students who are the most at risk. That’s an important part of the conversation.
      Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length.
      End Notes

      1 HealthDay. (2023, May 1). Suicide rates among U.S. adolescents doubled in 10 years. U.S. News & World Report.

      2 Youth suicide rates increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. (2023, May 22). National Institute of Mental Health.

      Sarah McKibben is the editor in chief of Educational Leadership magazine.

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