Christine Mason, Executive Director of the Center for Educational Improvement, Martha Staeheli, Director of the School Mental Health Program at the New England MHTTC, and Meghan Wenzel, CEI Senior Writer and Researcher
Teen suicide has been a huge concern for a long time. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10-24 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022). Moreover, according to a representative survey of over 13,000 high school youth conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2022), 37% of high school students reported experiencing poor mental health, with 44% reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
Yet, despite the concern of many — youth, educators, families, mental health professionals, and the general public — we have not yet implemented the wide-scale programs that could potentially make a significant difference. With an up-tick in suicides, schools have a significant role to play in both decreasing the number of suicides and improving the mental health and well-being of youth.
What can schools do to help youth who are feeling most troubled? Most importantly, feelings of hopelessness can be offset by “a sense of connectedness.” According to data from the recent CDC (2022) youth survey, “youth who felt connected to adults and peers at school were significantly less likely to report persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness (35% vs. 53%).”
School connectedness is a key to addressing youth adversities at all times – especially during times of severe disruptions. - Kathleen Ethier, Director of CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health (CDC, 2022).
According to Dr. Ethier, it is critical to help students both feel safe at schools and also connected to their communities.
The Role of Peer Supports
An approach of enormous potential that has not yet been widely implemented involves using peers to assist in providing the much-needed sense of connectedness and support.
A recent review of 711 school-based programs found that peer support programs improve students’ sense of well-being, social confidence, and health behaviors (Curren & Wexler, 2017).
Teenagers, afraid of being judged or criticized, are more likely to go to their friends for support before reaching out to an adult (Mental Health First Aid, 2019).
When peers have improved relationships with peers, they are more likely to feel more connected to their schools (Williams et al., 2018), and are also more likely to earn higher grades, achieve higher test scores, and graduate from high school, often because they are more engaged with their education, enjoy learning, and are more motivated to perform well (Klem & Connell, 2004).
If you are considering implementing such a program, realize that peer supports are never meant to supplant or replace therapy, counseling, or other critical services, and that all peers must know that they have an advisor to turn to if they are feeling overwhelmed or need an adult to step-in. Peer supports are meant to be one part of a larger suicide prevention program.
Peer support, however, can promote skills for coping with and managing mental health symptoms, develop a network of information and support from others who have been through similar experiences, and provide a safe, accepting, and compassionate environment. Peer support is most beneficial when the parties share commonalities, such as cultural background, religion, age, gender, and/or personal values.
How to Start a Teen Support Program
The Center for Educational Improvement is currently offering webinars on Teen-to-Teen Peer Supports, with upcoming sessions on May 12 and 18. These webinars provide highlights from a soon to be released eBook.
Here are a few key concepts from our work:
Customize the peer support program for your community, using a compassionate, strengths-based approach to furthering students’ mental health and well-being (Mason, et al., 2021).
Solicit input from many, including youth who have attempted suicide or have a suicidal ideation, other concerned youth, school counselors and mental health providers, families, and other school staff.
Follow your district policies and guidelines.
Be sensitive to the unique circumstances in your community,
Allow adequate time for recruitment and screening of peer supporters and offer at least six hours of training for peer supporters.
Match the most vulnerable at-risk youth with peer supporters and provide a structured weekly program of activities and guidance.
Ensure that all youth are aware of the importance of confidentiality, gain skills in listening and communication, find ways to connect with each other outside the weekly sessions, and implement practices to handle their stress and enhance their own sense of well-being.
As you begin your work in teen suicide prevention, ensure that all youth are aware of suicide warning signs, such as withdrawal from friends and/or family, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, loss of interest in everyday activities, acting-out or running away, unnecessary risk-taking, or a lack of interest in the future (Stanford Children’s Hospital, 2022).
Also, provide key phone numbers for professional support: the national suicide prevention hotline (1-800-273-8255), the new National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988, local mental health professionals you may want to contact, and for emergencies, call 911.
Register for our upcoming Teen-to-Teen Peer Support webinars and receive our accompanying eBook. If you register by May 6, you will also receive a coupon for 20% off our related book on Compassionate School Practices.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2022, March 31). New CDC data illuminate youth mental health threats during the COVID-19 pandemic [Press Release]. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2022/p0331-youth-mental-health-covid-19.html
Curran, T., & Wexler, L. (2017). School‐based positive youth development: A systematic review of the literature. Journal of School Health, 87(1), 71-80.
Klem, A. M., & Connell, J. P. (2004). Relationships matter: Linking teacher support to student engagement and achievement. Journal of School Health, 74(7), 262-273.
Mason, C., Asby, D., Wenzel, M., Volk, K. T., & Staeheli, M. (2021). Compassionate school practices: Fostering children′ s mental health and well-being. Corwin.
Mental Health First Aid. (2019, September 23). Why peer-to-peer support is important. https://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/2019/09/why-peer-to-peer-support-is-important/
National Prevention Suicide Hotline. (n.d.). The Lifeline and 988. Suicidepreventionlifeline.org. https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/current-events/the-lifeline-and-988/
Stanford Children’s Hospital. (2022). Teen suicide. https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=teen-suicide-90-P02584
Williams, J. M., Greenleaf, A. T., Barnes, E. F., & Scott, T. R. (2018). High-achieving, low-income students’ perspectives of how schools can promote the academic achievement of students living in poverty. Improving Schools, 22(3), 224-236. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1365480218821501