All over the nation, a startling number of teenagers commit suicide every year. In competitive school districts like Palo Alto, clusters of teen suicides occur at an especially alarming rate. In order to curtail this tragic phenomenon, Assembly Bill 2246 was drafted by Long Beach Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell. The bill requires schools to adopt suicide prevention policies targeting high-risk teens, particularly LGBTQ youth and teens mourning the loss of a peer — and will be in full effect this January.
Despite the fact that suicide is the second leading cause of death for teenagers, student suicides have gone largely unnoticed and untreated. Understandably, this has sparked outrage amongst parents and communities that have suffered from teen suicides. Teenagers after all, spend most of their time in school. Therefore, the school should be somewhat responsible for creating safeguards against such tragedies.
Schools in Palo Alto have already implemented a number of reforms aimed at reducing teen suicides. These policies include placing a limit on how much homework can be assigned and pushing the beginning of the school day back an hour. While these policies can be effective in reducing the amount of academic stress students endure, they do not actually combat other potential issues in their lives. Students, after all, are not solely students who do school work. They are also people with their own private lives beyond academics.
Therefore, when drafting suicide prevention policies, administrators should recognize that perhaps some of students’ stresses can stem from family life at home, issues with their sexual identity or negative relationships with their peers. The teenage years are a time of inner turmoil and change — while legislation can do away with students’ academic stress, it cannot do away with the hormonal and emotional warfare taking place within their bodies.
So instead of taking away certain things, it might be useful to do more instead. Ultimately, the greatest help administrators and faculty can offer students is social support. Teachers and other faculty members can become more friendly and approachable toward their students. This makes school a positive place for learning, and students might dread going to school less. Beyond being instructors or disciplinarians, teachers can also be confidants that students can approach for guidance. In such a confusing stage of life, the wisdom of an adult can be incredibly useful for students that might be feeling lost or isolated.
There should also be an initiative to actively seek out those in need of social support. Many suicides are unexpected — with friends and family reporting that they witnessed no signs of depression or intention to commit suicide from the victim. It might be beneficial to require high school students to undergo a mental health screening in order to determine who might be hiding a mental disorder or is at risk for developing one. These individuals can then receive the treatment and support that they need.
If this is not fiscally feasible, schools should work hard in reducing the stigma surrounding mental health issues. This can be done by educating students about mental health, as well as teaching them about the warning signs of depression or suicide. This could encourage those who are ashamed of their illness to step forward and receive treatment. Furthermore, students can be armed with the information that could help them identify classmates that might need help.
Schools needs to become safer and more welcoming spaces for students. While legislations and policies can help make their academic lives easier, it means nothing if they feel lonely and isolated. Instead of removing potential stressors, administrators and policy makers need to treat the underlying causes — otherwise this epidemic will never subside.