“I’m going to end it!” Unsure of what I heard, I questioned back, “End what?” Her response was, “My life!”
This brief encounter led to a walk where Reagan and I talked, and she explained her detailed plan to end her life. Shock and fear don’t begin to describe the emotions I was feeling. Pale-faced and shaking, I quickly told her that her life mattered and she meant something to me.
I had lost a student to suicide two years ago and didn’t want to go down the same path with Reagan. I told her that she isn’t a student of mine for just a day, month or a year. She is a student of mine for life and deserves to be heard and helped. How did I get thrown into this situation? I am not a counselor or a social worker. I am a math teacher and yet Reagan felt that I was the one that she could confide in.
This incident took place three years ago and the crisis that Reagan was in was very real. In today’s world, the trauma is much more compounded. Students are dealing with COVID-related closures and stressors, in addition to their everyday lives. I didn’t know what to do then and I still don’t feel fully equipped now.
These are not the topics I deal with ordinarily in my math classroom, where our focus is on sales tax, tipping percentages, or adding and subtracting negative numbers. But as the pandemic made clear, teachers like me are playing many roles outside of our instructional expertise. With the shortage of social workers and counselors in schools, a great deal of the responsibility to handle a situation like the one I encountered with Reagan falls on the teacher. We need training in suicide prevention, the effects of trauma and resiliency.
September is Suicide Prevention Month. Suicide among young people was prevalent before COVID-19 and, in fact, according to the CDC, suicide is currently the second leading cause of death for 15-24-year-old Americans. There is an understandable concern about suicide statistics skyrocketing during the pandemic. The thought of ending one's life may seem, horribly, like a practical solution in today’s COVID-filled world where students are not in school, in abusive homes, or suffering from a mental illness and are susceptible to individual, relationship, community, and societal factors.
Helping a child navigate through a difficult situation or a traumatic event could potentially save their life. And the one adult who might be there, in a real or virtual room, when that child needs help the most, is their teacher.
So, how do we help teachers, who are already stretched thin answering the demands of the pandemic, address such issues? Beyond the in-depth training in trauma-informed instruction all teachers would benefit from, there are a few ways to get started.
First, even an hour-long training in Adverse Childhood Effects (ACEs) could be effective. ACEs are trauma-related incidents that can negatively impact the future of a child in a severe way. Toxic stress from ACEs can change brain development and affect such things as attention, decision-making, learning and response to stress.
Second, speaking to a social worker or counselor who is trained in dealing with complex trauma is beneficial to teachers who are not knowledgeable on how to support a student and maneuver through a crisis situation. I recently spoke with a counselor about ways to help teachers. She was willing to help and had many resources for teachers. She suggested that teachers be trained in trauma, but also resiliency, an area of which many teachers are unaware. Developing trauma resiliency for a student can mean spending as little as 10 minutes a day with a trusted adult who is listening.
Finally, another way for teachers to find solutions to dealing with students’ trauma is by reaching out to colleagues who have dealt with similar situations and can empathize with them. This small measure can have a massive impact on making teachers feel supported during a particularly difficult time. I’ve had many such conversations with colleagues and have found them incredibly helpful.
Reagan was hospitalized after the incident in my classroom. She came back for a short time, but then transferred to an alternative school that could better suit her educational needs. I’ve since lost track of her; all I can do is hope that she is okay. I also hope to never have the same conversation as I did with Reagan with another student. But if that happens, I want and need to be better prepared. Every student in crisis deserves our best effort; that can only happen with the right preparation.