New York State School Boards Association

Talking about suicide, depression should be OK in public schools

by Jason Thomson

On Board Online • December 11, 2017

By Jason Thomson
Superintendent Delaware Academy CSD at Delhi

Depression and suicide are interconnected and directly related among teens, with untreated depression being the number one cause of suicide. Teens who experience depression are 12 times more likely to attempt suicide than teens not going through depression bouts. More than half who successfully complete suicide had major depression and suicide issues as well as a connection between the two factors.

As a start, we as educators can look for and recognize warning signs for depression and suicide. About 9 in 10 teens who are suicidal display clues or warning signs to others. Warning signs of depression and suicide include, but are not limited to, fatigue, difficulty sleeping or insomnia, drastic weight change, loss of interest in once-enjoyable activities, feeling bored all the time, irritability, and thoughts of death and suicide.

Beyond that, any efforts by school administrators to address depression and suicide would appear to conflict with the traditional philosophy of education, called essentialism. An essentialist approach is to teach the basic facts and essential traditional areas of content and discipline (i.e., math, science, history, and literature). Where would a mental health curriculum fit in? I believe we need mental health education in all schools today to be included in our core content as a "new essentialist" philosophical approach to education.

Part of this approach would be "creating an atmosphere wherein suicide and/or distress can be discussed openly," as advocated in a 2012 article in Gifted Student Today. Unfortunately, mental health topics, including suicide, are considered taboo areas of discussion. I equate it to the 1950s when sex education was a taboo content area. We now know that talking about sex education does not increase sexual activity.

The concept of "social reconstruction" (sometimes called "social reconstructionism") can help us to redesign the curriculum. Social reconstruction is the idea that education can be used to solve social problems, sometimes through group problem-solving. For students to discuss issues involving mental health, the school must feel safe, and students need to feel a high level of empowerment.

In my school district, Delaware Academy at Delhi, we have started a program called "Thirteen Reasons Why Not," where educators and adolescents can openly discuss their mental health issues and concerns. (See On Board, June 12, 2017).

By understanding our students as people, and having open conversations together, we can better understand the causes of depression. I believe that by establishing positive, healthy, and meaningful relationships with individual students, any member of the school community can make a difference.

This article was adapted from a paper written by the author as part of doctoral studies at Binghamton University.


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