Committee for Children Blog

6 Action Areas for Community-wide Suicide Prevention

School kids supporting each other

Suicide doesn’t discriminate. People of all genders, ages, and ethnicities can be at risk. Unfortunately, in recent years the issue of suicidality has become particularly pervasive in schools across the nation. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents.1 And although suicidal thoughts and behaviors are typically seen in older teens, a 2017 study found that the number of children and adolescents admitted to children’s hospitals for thoughts of suicide or self-harm more than doubled in the last decade.2

In 2015, the community of Tooele County in Utah experienced a devastating year. The district saw seven student suicides, a murder, and multiple adult suicides and untimely parent deaths. Determined to make lasting changes through an effective strategy, the district and the greater community joined forces. They took on not only suicide prevention but also the stigma that often accompanies mental health challenges like depression and anxiety. 

Guided by experts in the field, they kept three key factors in mind: access to mental health care, implementation of an evidence-based program to improve school climate and prevent self-destructive behavior, and a balanced approach that considers mental health, academics, and school climate.

Inevitably, logistical questions arose. Where does the funding come from? How do you encourage community buy-in? What exactly does that balanced approach look like? How do you keep an endeavor of this scale going strong?

The Tooele community identified six areas of action to serve as a roadmap for answering these questions and reach their goal of suicide prevention. They’ve been implementing them in stages.   

1. Foundational Behavioral Framework and Social-Emotional Learning

Establish a districtwide foundation of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) through adhering to research-based principles: assessing yearly to personalize implementation, establishing schoolwide behavior expectations, systemically rewarding good behavior, identifying students in need of additional support, providing targeted interventions to students struggling behaviorally or academically, and collecting and analyzing data to drive school improvement decisions.

Introduce an evidence-based schoolwide program that will provide a common vocabulary with strong SEL components. Tooele chose Second Step because it’s research-based, individualized to each grade level, easy to implement by teachers, and supplemented with additional classroom and behavioral management strategies.

2. Mental Health Services

Increase mental health services by hiring Safe Schools Coordinators and additional school counselors with suicide prevention training, implement open-door policies, and provide six free mental health visits outside of school.

3. Suicide and Bullying Prevention

Implement evidence-based programs that address bullying, harassment, and negative emotions; establish peer-to-peer prevention programs (such as HOPE Squad, Bully Busters, or SafeUT); increase schoolwide programs like assemblies to address bullying and harassment; and partner with local organizations and institutions to advance prevention efforts.

4. Data and Reporting

Track and report data to validate future funding and identify potential gaps in mental health support.

5. Funding

Apply for state and federal grants that address topics like school climate and elementary counseling. Also, seek out additional funding from local organizations and foundations.

6. Community Engagement

Build deep relationships with community members, from parents to the police department. Encourage using common terminology, collaborate on fundraising efforts, and communicate what different members can do support one another.

While national youth suicide rates continue to rise, the Tooele County School District has seen a substantial decline. But it comes with the recognition that there is no finish line in terms of mental health. The community continues to do the work necessary to sustain and build upon the success it has achieved so far.

Additional Suicide Prevention Resources

Learn more about Tooele’s school district-led suicide prevention.

Visit the federally funded Suicide Prevention Resource Center.

Mental Health References

  1. National Institute of Mental Health. (2017). Suicide [Article]. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/suicide.shtml
  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. (2017). Children’s hospitals admissions for suicidal thoughts, actions double during past decade [Article]. Retrieved from  https://www.aappublications.org/news/2017/05/04/PASSuicide050417