WSPA Suicide Prevention Survey Blog – by Scott McGuire

When I was asked to write a blog for the WSPA about suicide prevention, I started thinking about how our small district of about 750-800 students addressed mental health issues and wondered how other districts handled the same issues.  I will briefly go over our district’s suicide prevention steps to help provide some background.  At the beginning of each school year, every school district employee completes a series of Safe Schools online trainings which includes a course on suicide prevention warning signs and reporting guidelines.  When a staff member suspects a person has suicidal thoughts the person reports their suspicion to an administrator or school counselor.   The school counselor then interviews the person, reports the incident to the student’s parents, and decides on an action plan that could involve contacting a mental health hospital for professional help.

After discussing the process with our building school counselors, we determined that the suicide prevention process does not start with those steps.  We do so much more to help prevent a crisis and build in supports and coping strategies for students to help them through a mental health crisis.  It starts with a school culture of building trust and a positive relationship with the students through greetings and shared interest in their activities.  Maintaining the positive relationships by being supportive and caring even when actions or emotions become negative. Then adding layers of support with social emotional skill building lessons and regular contact with the building school counselor.

Our high school has a Sources of Strength program that is lead by other students to help identify students at risk and change social norms by increasing help seeking behaviors and promoting connections between peers and caring adults.  The school counselor meets with some students on a regular basis and other students on an as needed or situational basis.

Our middle school has a social emotional skill building intervention time built into their weekly class schedule.   The middle school teachers use a social emotional mental health program called Habitudes to help students develop good habits and a positive attitude.  The programs curriculum is designed to teach leadership and life skills such as self-awareness, impulse control, empathy, teamwork, and responsible decision-making, the skills they need to succeed in school and life.  For students who need more intense small group lessons, the students participate in the Why Try social emotional skill building daily intervention.

Our elementary school also actively teaches schoolwide social and behavioral skills, conducts a one-minute interview with all of the students as a wellness check, and establishes at least one adult in the building as a support person for each student.  The counselors teach advanced social emotional skills with at risk students as well as provide daily problem-solving strategies to all students as needed.

Most of the district’s efforts are put into prevention and help provide our students and staff with resiliency tools.

To help understand how mental health issues are handled across our state and what role school psychologists have in providing the services, two surveys were sent to the WSPA members.  One survey was sent to the WSPA associate members who are usually not practicing school psychologists and another survey was sent to the WSPA members who are school psychologists.

The associate members reported that the most effective way to support students with mental health issues is to build a personal connection with staff and students.  They identified the school counselor and the build principal as the people who were most aware of students in crisis.  They saw a school psychologist’s role as a person who should help identify students in crisis and consult with teachers and administrates on how best to support a student’s mental health needs in school.  However, when asked about the current role of the school psychologist in their building, they reported either that they were not aware of the school psychologist having a role in the student’s mental health services or that the school psychologist was regularly available and engaged with all students who needed help.

The survey that was sent to the WSPA school psychologists indicated that there was a wide range of roles that school psychologists have in Wyoming schools.  Several of the respondents stated that they provide direct suicide prevention interventions with students and are deeply involved in promoting good mental health services to students, but I will generalize the data and report the top responses for the survey questions.  About 1 in 9 school psychologists were aware of a student from a building they work, committing suicide in the past 12 months.  Almost all (97%) of the school psychologists responded that they had adequate suicide prevention training, but many do not use their training.  The school psychologists would like to have additional training in the areas of IEP counseling and general education suicide crisis management.  When asked, they reported that the most effective ways to prevent suicides were to have a schoolwide initiative to make personal connections with students and staff and to teach social emotional skills to all of the students.  Currently, most school psychologists support mental health services in schools by providing counseling services to general education and/or special education students along with consulting with administrators and teachers on best practices for student mental health needs.  Many school psychologists reported that they do not have a role within their current job duties in providing mental health supports.

As far as my role in providing mental health services as a school psychologist in a small district, over the years I have taught mixed groups of SPED and general education students grades 4-12 social emotional skills using the Why Try program materials and provide IEP counseling services for high school SPED students who need educational counseling assistance.  I also volunteer to serve as a lunch recess and hallway monitor to help me build positive connections with all students.  I try to make myself available to all staff and students and provide either formal advice in my evaluation reports and classroom observation consultations or informal advice with classroom and student problem solving suggestions.  It is one of the highlights of my job, to feel that I made a difference in helping a student through a challenging time.  This report can be summed up by saying that building and maintaining positive personal connections is an effective way to help support people that are experiencing an emotional crisis.  It is effective, it is rewarding, anybody can do it, and it does not require additional training.  If someone does have suicidal thoughts, they may need immediate intensive professional help.  My suicide prevention training has taught me that suicides can be prevented.  Here are some effective suicide intervention steps.

  • Take suicide threats seriously.
  • Remain non-judgmental about what a person in a crisis is telling you.
  • Listen carefully to what the person is saying.
  • Respond to their thoughts with reflective statements.
  • Let the person know that help is available to them.

Thank you to everybody who responded to the survey questions.