14 Percent of Your Students Have an Actual Plan to Commit Suicide

Sep 5, 2018 12:00:00 AM

by Dirk Tillotson

Fourteen percent of your students have a suicide plan. Thirty-one percent report suicidal thoughts, but 14 percent of them actually have a plan. One in 10 female students report being forced to have sex. For males, it’s 1 in 28. These numbers are all trending in the wrong direction. And they are bleak. They make your heart hurt and your chest tighten. Teachers, just think about your class. [pullquote position="right"]In a class of 30 or so kids, 10 have thoughts of suicide and four have an actual plan.[/pullquote] One or two of the young women have been raped—and it’s 50-50 that a young man has. These were be disturbing results from the latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey from the federal government’s Center for Disease Control. There was some good news, as described in a New York Times article.
The report did offer some encouraging trends, suggesting that the overall picture for adolescents is a nuanced one. Compared to a decade ago, fewer students reported having had sex, drinking alcohol or using drugs like cocaine, heroin or marijuana.
But, damn, 14 percent.

Put It in Your Curriculum

In the schools I’ve worked with, we have caught some of those kids who were falling, but we’ve also lost some. And those ones you lose haunt you. These recent survey numbers, combined with the lived experiences of our students, highlight the need for an emphasis on mental health or wellness in adolescents. Algebra 2 won’t help if you are imploding in on yourself and have no place to go for help, and no strategies to deal with your challenges. I’m not just talking about a counselor’s office where kids in apparent crisis get pulled out of class for a talk. Our schools need a universal approach that helps all students better understand their own development, as well as the challenges and triggers to look out for. Students should be taught practical strategies to cope and prosper. [pullquote]Every teenager needs this, not just the 14 percent.[/pullquote] And universalizing the program destigmatizes it. And that is critical to getting us to a place where we can actually help.

We Can Do This

I know, I know, pie in the sky… But it’s not. There are schools that see wellness as an essential part of the curriculum, and they are working. Families and students have felt the effects. In fact, a charter school I work with in New York City—one that has recruited and served many high-needs students—was recently recognized for the model. John W. Lavelle Prep Charter School, part of the Integration Charter Schools network, was the first college preparatory public school in New York that was designed to serve students with emerging mental health challenges. We (I am on the board) recruit these students and reserve seats for them, and they constitute roughly 30 percent of each entering class. We have a pretty simple recipe: Train all staff, minimize pull-outs by having only one program for integrated college prep and make wellness part of the curriculum. Our founder, Dr. Ken Byalin, described the school to me:
“We needed a level playing field for kids with mental illness,” says Dr. Ken Byalin, the founder of Lavelle Prep, as he explains the genesis of the school. “There were some special education programs, but there were big gaps in service as students got older.”… Often in “inclusive” classrooms, there are two teachers and really two simultaneous classes. Students may physically sit in the same class, but in fact different teachers are teaching different content. At Lavelle, it’s one class for everyone. As Dr. Byalin says, “There is only one program at Lavelle Prep, and everyone participates.”

Back to the Stat

Our students are in crisis. If you listen to them, you will hear that. And they need help. We need to redesign the school day and curriculum to meet their real needs. And while not every school can be a Lavelle Prep, every classroom can be more humane and make room for wellness. Frankly, our students need this more than Algebra 2. If you need motivation, just think of the 14 percent.
An original version of this piece appeared on Great School Voices as "The Statistic Every Educator Needs to Know Before School Starts."

Dirk Tillotson

Dirk Tillotson is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Great Schools Choices, which supports community-based charter school development and increasing access for underserved families. He has worked for over 20 years supporting mostly charter community schools in Oakland, New Orleans and New York City, and he’s even consulted on education issues in the Middle East. As a child, his parents moved their family to a high-performing school district where they were the first Black family on the block. The challenges of that experience embedded in him a desire to create academically high-quality schools where students don’t have to check their identities at the door. Dirk currently resides in Oakland, California, and blogs at Great School Voices.

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