Television is a gateway to influence a young person’s mind. Depending on the show, the change can be positive or negative. Unfortunately, there’s a popular show you may have seen on Netflix called 13 Reasons Why that has led to very tragic changes in the mind of many teens, which has increased suicide, according to the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Many school professionals, like Ron Astor who is a USC professor and an expert in the subject of bullying and school violence, feel that this particular show sensationalizes and romanticizes suicide. In other words, the show may be wrongly influencing teens to think about suicide in a positive way.
Astor decided to conduct a school-level analysis of nearly 800 high schools in California to try and determine a connection between youth suicide and the high school environment. Astor initially felt that suicide ideation (i.e., suicidal thoughts) stemmed from a mental health issue that the schools may not have known about. However, he soon learned that the composition of students in the school setting was contributing strongly to suicide ideation.
A study published in the Journal of Pediatrics by Astor and his colleagues showed that nearly 1 in 5 California high schools students had experienced suicidal thoughts. Interestingly, though, this isn’t an average among schools. With Astor’s school-level analysis, he found that the level of suicidal ideation varies greatly from school to school, with some high schools reporting as low as 4 percent, while others reached nearly 70 percent.
So, why do some schools have higher suicidal ideation rates than others? A high school’s demographics and peer groups have a significant impact on these rates. Suicidal thoughts could be felt due to gender, sense of school belongingness, involvement in violence, or a lack of adult support. But, the overall composition of the student population at a school, for example, may be more indicative of the risk of suicidal ideation among students than race or ethnicity. What this means is that the school environment does play a role in teen suicide ideation.
Astor’s study highlights a problem in how suicide is addressed in schools in California and across the country.
“[Suicidal ideation] is really conceived of and thought of as an individual issue and treated as a counseling, psychological or medical issue,” said Astor. “But the school is not just a place where you find kids with mental illnesses and deliver services. It’s a place where you have to address the actual peer and social dynamics that contribute to higher suicidal ideation.”
Because a school’s demographic plays a part, schools with high suicide ideation need to be provided national and state resources to help them prevent the negative trend spreading throughout the school. It’s no longer just about focusing on why individual students are feeling suicidal. It’s now also about focusing on how entire peer groups at schools are “normalizing” suicide or who are, themselves, feeling suicidal.
Nationally, suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds. The age-adjusted rate of suicide for 15- to 19-year-olds was approximately 10 per 100,000 population, with rates of suicide among young men and young women steadily increasing. Although young males had higher rates of suicide, females in high school were more likely to consider attempting suicide and to make a suicide plan.
Based on their analysis, Astor and his colleagues believe suicidal ideation needs to be tackled with a public health approach in schools. Instead of focusing just on the individual, schools need to focus on the entire community and environment, supporting students from both an educational and a socio-emotional perspective. That requires making sure the entire school staff, including teachers, principals, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers, understand the dynamics within high-risk schools and are prepared to intervene when they see individuals who may be at risk. Adults, including parents, need to be educated about how to respond when a student says they want to die.
Similarly, schools have to address issues of secrecy. Think about a high school’s peer groups. Peer groups may be more likely to know if a friend is thinking about suicide or has attempted suicide than staff at the school. Students need to understand the importance of telling a school staff member when a friend says something of concern. And schools should make sure staff is trained on how to handle such referrals.
Peer groups are powerful, and if too many students in a peer group start talking about suicide, it may get normalized, and this must be prevented. When something starts to become “normal,” it reaches a tipping point and gains legitimacy.
Further studies on peer group dynamics and the question of tipping points related to the number of students who have suicidal ideation can help schools determine the types of resources, staff training, expertise, community supports and programs they need.
Astor believes schools can work with peer groups to help save students’ lives by focusing on school climate.
Focusing on making schools more welcoming and more accepting between peer groups and school staff is one way to help high-risk groups. Astor suggests developing extracurricular activities that emphasize school connectedness and acceptance. He also suggests paying close attention to new students transitioning into schools who may feel isolated or stigmatized and have difficulty making friends, leaving them vulnerable to joining risky peer groups.
Astor recommends training teens on how to welcome new students into a school, ensuring that transitioning students have a positive peer group to help them through their first couple months. With teachers’ and principals’ guidance, the students can offer simple support, such as a place to sit in the cafeteria or tutoring, to help prevent them from falling behind academically. This kind of support may be minimal, but it is also important for teens who may be heavily influenced by their peers.
Research is needed to compare schools that have similar school-level characteristics but different levels of suicidal ideation to determine why certain schools are addressing the problem better than others. Hopefully, this will lead to a more effective strategy to deal with suicidal ideation that zeroes in on problematic areas with high suicide ideation rate schools.
No longer should schools just provide general information regarding suicide prevention and hope for the best. Schools need to learn from each other as to what is effective and not effective. Those schools with high suicide ideation rates should look at schools with similar demographics but lower rates and seek out what works for them and take their approach.
As mentioned previously, peer groups are powerful and influential. And high schools need to recognize and not ignore this fact. It’s the high school environment that plays a part in suicide ideation, and once this is acknowledged, preventative steps can and should be taken immediately. Let’s help and support our teens and not turn a blind eye to their conversations that fill the high school halls.
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