This year, the controversial Netflix show “13 Reasons Why” aired, subsequently shining a light on the topic of suicide. Some say that the show glamorizes suicide, and it has quickly taken the education field by storm with the ramifications for our youth. While the show has brought to light topics of bullying and sexual assault, it has failed to highlight the extremely critical issue of mental illness.

If you watched it, you may have cringed when the counselor didn’t do more during the last episode, when the main character shared her situation and suicidal ideation. (The counselor had a phone call and was so inundated with his tasks of the day that he did not follow up with that girl’s parents.) The young lady went home and killed herself that day. 

I don’t know about you, but as an educator, that’s my worst nightmare—losing a student when you know you could have done more.

When I was in high school, I had a close friend who committed suicide. This event shattered and changed my world forever. In fact, it led me to become an educator. The fact is, he exhibited signs of mental illness on a daily basis. Yet no teacher, counselor, administrator, or adult stepped in to offer intervention. It’s time to change that. We are all responsible; we all need to step in.

As the only assistant principal in a building of about 600 kids, I wear multiple hats, including being the behavioral interventionist/mediator along with facilitating IEPs (individualized education plans) and SSTs (student support teams). I help kids with conflict resolution, managing their anger, and problem solving. Until this past school year, I could count on one hand the number of kids I heard talking about hurting themselves during all my years. In 2016–17, it got mentioned all the time. Kids would say, “I just want to kill myself.”

It’s a Process

Of course we have a process in place within our school system for when that happens. The person who hears the threat contacts the school counselor, who does a threat assessment, makes a plan with the child for help, contacts the parents, and seeks out additional resources as needed. Most of the time, the child does not realize the impact of what they are saying, and they don’t really mean it. However, this year I had a student who did mean it, and he had a plan for how he wanted to kill himself. That made our job of working with the parent and getting the child the appropriate treatment critical.

After we got the process started for SST, the parent shared that over one weekend the child had been placed in a mental health institution. The parent put me on the visitor list for the student, and I went. Subsequently, the child had an additional stay there. He attended their day school and worked with our school processes to put him on a modified day with a 504 plan.

However, due to medication changes, he had significant side effects that increased suicidal tendencies, causing detrimental repercussions during the school day. This led to an increase in our collaboration with the parent and outside mental health professionals. Because of this incident, we now have a home-and-hospital process in place for when a child cannot attend school and requires a tutor through the system.

As a result of this collaborative approach and the parent’s dedication to finding appropriate treatment for her child—which involved working with mental health professionals to implement and monitor appropriate medications along with taking him to therapy on a consistent basis—he is making good progress now. But what would have happened if he hadn’t gotten appropriate intervention and treatment?

Rise in Mental Health Concerns?

The situations this past year got me thinking about whether there has been a significant rise in mental health concerns among our youth. It certainly seemed like it in my day-to-day interactions. Research shows that 1 in 5 kids will struggle with a mental health disorder at some point. Fifty percent of those mental illnesses begin by age 14, and 75 percent begin by age 24. Suicide is the second leading cause of death between 15- and 24-year-olds, with 90 percent of those who have died of suicide showing signs of an underlying mental illness.
The chart below outlines the signs of the most common mental disorders that can have similar symptoms. It is important for us to recognize these as educators.

If a parent notices these symptoms and has a concern, or if you as an educator have a concern that a student could have a mental disorder and/or needs treatment, it is important for you to get the school’s appropriate personnel to set up a student support team (SST) meeting. Members of the SST can provide appropriate resources to help the student, implement assessments to get a diagnosis, and identify interventions. It is also extremely important to bring in the student so he or she can offer input on how their disability affects them in order to learn how to take responsibility for advocating for their own interventions.

As educators, it is imperative that we tackle the social-emotional needs of our youth. Putting up posters or having isolated conversations is not enough. We have to teach kids how to manage their stress, talk back to the negative thoughts in their mind, and model the importance of maintaining a healthy mindset. Within my school system, we have adopted restorative practices where we have daily class meetings with students, peace talks, and other techniques to teach them conflict resolution skills, because mental health disorders don’t just go away. There isn’t a magic pill or perfect treatment plan. But if we teach our youth the importance of managing their mental health, perhaps we can reduce the mental health stigma and watch those statistics decrease.  

Chrissie Kahan is an advocate for equity and students with disabilities. She has been an educator for the past 15 years, serving as the assistant principal for Baltimore County Public Schools in Maryland for the last eight years.

Checklist for Secondary School Educators

Do you know …

  • Your school’s team process for referral and identification of a disability?
  • The members within your school who handle specific aspects of mental health concerns (guidance counselor, social worker, nurse, psychologist)?
  • How to collaborate with staff in a timely way if you have a concern about a student?
  • Your district’s available resources on mental health?