Maryellen McClain

In 2017, the suicide rate for Utah children ages 10-17 was 42 per 100,000 people. The causes of suicide are complex, but there are some things community members and schools can do to prevent suicide.

Language plays an important role, said Lacey McFarland, the suicide prevention coordinator at Weber-Morgan Health Department.

“If we report suicide within safe messaging guidelines, that can open the doors to communication,” McFarland said. “If we sensationalize it or we glamorize it, then we can contribute to that spread.”

School counselors, school social workers and school psychologists all work together to prevent suicide by actively supporting student health and safety. While the role of each provider varies depending on school district and age of the students, each holds a common goal to create a supportive and healthy environment.

Additionally, these providers collaborate to help students improve study skills and social skills, prepare for college and customizing class schedules. They implement programs and assessments and adjust curricula to make schools safe places with supportive learning environments. They can also help with serious concerns like family issues and abuse.

Far from being independent operators, each of these professionals includes families, teachers and other mental health professionals and others in their efforts. School psychologists, similar to other school-based support team members, may also provide direct mental health services to students. One distinction in roles is that school psychologists do conduct evaluations.

So why are school psychologists important, and how can they help prevent suicide? In light of School Psychologist Awareness Week this month (November 12-16), let’s explore how psychologists can identify risk factors, enable communication among important figures in a student’s life, and be a first responder for students who are struggling.

Identify Risk Factors

With their extensive mental health training, school psychologists can identify children at risk for suicide and know how to intervene. Suicide risk factors include isolation, previous suicide attempts, self-harm, mental illness, situational crises, family stress or dysfunction and a family history of suicide.

When school psychologists identify an at-risk child, they are able to make recommendations and referrals and can also provide counseling and support at school. In their unique position in a child’s life, they are able to focus exclusively on each child’s mental and emotional health without having to split attention between these important aspects and other parts of the child’s life, like academic achievement.

School psychologists also help identify, evaluate and assist students with specific disabilities. With their specialized training, school psychologists can assess students’ cognitive, social and behavioral needs; monitor student progress and communicate with parents, and cater instruction to meet students’ specific needs. These efforts increase the school psychologist’s and teachers’ proactivity toward learning students’ needs and how they can best be met.

Enable Communication

When it comes to meeting with a psychologist, children may “open up when Mom and Dad are not around. This is especially true of teenagers and adolescents who may appreciate the privacy.” As such, school psychologists have the knowledge and vocabulary to help parents, teachers and administrators know how to best help students struggling with depression or suicide ideation. They can help create helpful communication so each student has a supportive team behind him or her.

More formally, the School Safety Commission recommends that schools create a threat assessment team that includes a school psychologist, police officer, administrator and others. This team should be able to respond immediately when there’s a threat of students harming themselves or others.

Be a First Responder

Like school counselors, school psychologists exist to help students be successful. When students face depression or other serious mental and emotional problems, school psychologists are right there, specifically to help with those issues.

School psychologists are there to

n Look out for students who need mental and emotional support.

n Ensure classroom structure is supportive of mental health.

n Monitor student progress.

n Help students be engaged and motivated.

n Collect data so that future students can benefit from what the school psychologist is learning.

n Meet with students individually to help them feel heard and supported and to make sure they are getting access to resources they need.

School psychologists can help prevent suicide by identifying risk factors, enabling communication and acting as a first responder. As suicide has reached epidemic levels in Utah, school psychologists are a powerful line of defense that can help protect children. Together, school counselors, school social workers and school psychologists are important resources who can help each child be healthy and safe.

Maryellen McClain is an assistant professor of psychology at the School of Psychology Program at Utah State University.