Responding to self-harm and suicide in your school district

As difficult as they are to discuss, self-harm and suicidal ideation are highly relevant challenges to the K-12 school system. Not only are they a sign of underlying mental health issues, they’re also an immense danger to student safety. To make matters worse, cases of poor mental health seem to be increasingly common across the United States.

In fact, more than 40% of K-12 students experienced persistent feelings of sadness in the past year, according to a recent Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey. It’s not unrealistic to expect that a portion of these students may go on to engage in self-harm or suicidal behavior.

As school faculty, you need to be prepared for the possibility that day may come — but what exactly does that mean? In this blog, we’ll guide you through what you need to know about responding to self-harm and suicide in your district.

[FREE WEBINAR] How Technology Fits Into Your Student Mental Health and Safety Programs, WATCH THE RECORDING HERE!

What is your school district’s responsibility?

According to an analysis by FairHealth of over 32 billion health care records, emergency room visits for intentional self-harm have nearly doubled in recent years. Another study suggests that the suicide rate for young adults aged 15-24 has tripled since the 1950s. Today, suicide is the second leading cause of death for teens aged 14-18, according to the CDC.

In other words, self-harm and suicidal behavior are a growing threat to student safety.

Of course, it goes without saying that your district has a moral obligation to identify and prevent these risks. But it’s also important to understand that you have equally significant legal responsibilities when it comes to protecting your students’ mental health.

Legal responsibilities

Many states require school districts to implement formal suicide prevention policies and programs, per the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Others have enforced state-mandated prevention training. You can check your state’s requirements using the National Association of State Boards of Education’s policy database.

However, there are also federal legislations you need to have on your radar. According to the U.S. Department of Education, students with mental health conditions are protected by federal laws, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

These laws require K-12 school districts to make decisions about how to respond to students at risk of self-harm based on an assessment of each student’s circumstances rather than on fears or generalizations about mental health. When schools don’t meet these responsibilities, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) can intervene.

Government grants and programs

The good news is that recent actions by the Biden administration have made it easier for schools to address mental health. Two new Department of Education grants offer nearly $300 million in funding for schools to build a better pipeline of mental health support. The grants aim to help schools overcome staffing shortages by giving them the funds to recruit school-focused mental health professionals.

Additionally, the recent American Rescue Plan allocates $122 billion in funding for K-12 schools to address challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic. This money can be used to implement strategies that meet the emotional and mental health needs of students, including through evidence-based intervention programs.

The role of IT in self-harm and suicide prevention

When it comes to risks as dangerous as self-harm or suicide, it’s important to stay ahead of the curve. In other words, you need to be proactively on the lookout for signs of either behavior. That way, you can jump into action as quickly as possible and initiate the proper response.

The problem? Most school districts are limited by their resources. Whether it be a staffing shortage or budget constraints, many don’t have the means to proactively monitor the well-being of thousands of students simultaneously. As if that’s not hard enough, signs of self-harm and suicidal ideation are exceptonally difficult to identify.

That’s where your IT department comes into play. With the right tools at their disposal, IT staff can shine a light on student safety signals. Why? Because believe it or not, students often reflect their mental health in their digital footprint — and that includes your cloud domains.

Over 90% of schools operate in the cloud using either Microsoft 365 or Google Workspace. Consequently, students are leaving clues about their mental health in their activity, such as using a Google Doc as a diary or discussing their feelings with classmates over email. A cloud monitoring solution like ManagedMethods allows your team to keep an eye on cloud activity for any signs of self-harm or suicidal ideation.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Customizable policies: A cloud monitoring tool can be configured to your needs using a policy system. When students violate a policy — such as by discussing their intent to hurt themselves — the tool will automatically identify this risk and alert your team. You can tweak these rules over time to account for any trends in self-harm or suicide behavior.
  2. Advanced risk detection: Cloud monitoring solutions use keyword and regular expression (regex) scanning to automatically detect a string of text that defines a search pattern. This allows you to recognize keywords or phrases that may contain discussion of self-harm or suicide. Likewise, the tool also scans cloud-based files and images for any content that may constitute a policy violation.
  3. Incident management: By proactively monitoring the cloud domain, you can rapidly intervene before it’s too late. Once you’re alerted, you gain detailed information about the incident, including the owner/creator of the violation, who that file or communication was shared with and who accessed or contributed to its content. This helps you make a better decision when it comes to responding to safety signals as appropriately as possible.

What’s also important is that cloud monitoring tools don’t just identify signs of self–harm or suicide. The same technology can detect toxic behaviors that may lead to poor mental health, such as bullying or cyberbullying.

“We’ve seen an uptick in bullying and other inappropriate behaviors,” said K-12 technology leader Bob Boyd at our recent webinar. “If we didn’t have the technology we have with ManagedMethods, and other partners we use, there is no way that our staff of five could keep up.”

According to fellow technology leader Toni McPherson, implementing this type of technology has made students more comfortable discussing their experiences.

“Our students know about the tools we’re using and they’ve started self-reporting things, like if they’re being bullied or see others being bullied, if they’ve heard about a fight, things like that,” said McPherson. “They know there’s a good chance that we’ve picked up on it and it relieves some of that responsibility from them so they don’t feel like they’ll be labeled a ‘snitch’ by their peers.”

[FREE WEBINAR] How Technology Fits Into Your Student Mental Health and Safety Programs, WATCH THE RECORDING HERE!

How to respond to signs of self-harm and suicide in your cloud domains

With a cloud monitoring tool, it’s easy to identify safety risks in your cloud domain. But detecting risks is one thing — responding to them is entirely another.

To help you better understand how you should approach cases of potential self-harm or suicide, let’s take a closer look at a few do’s and don’ts:

  1. Do designate a point-person
    Choose someone from your staff who should receive the alerts when a policy violation occurs. Ideally, someone on your IT staff should be the first to be warned so that they can investigate the situation thoroughly. Assess the severity of the case and make decisions about who should be involved in the process moving forward (e.g. the principal, school resource officer, or even law enforcement).
  2. Don’t use judgemental language
    When speaking with the involved student, approach the situation as objectively as possible. It’s important to understand that your choice of language can contribute to stigmatizing the subject and impact a student’s willingness to seek support.Don’t refer to the student as a victim or make assumptions about their mental health, such as any underlying conditions they may have. It’s also key not to use language that trivializes their feelings or belittles their state of mind.
  3. Do create a response plan
    Prepare for when a high-risk situation arises by creating a standardized response plan. Outline the protocols all stakeholders must follow when investigating an incident, including when the help of a mental health professional or crisis response team are needed. This ensures that your response is fast, calculated, and appropriate given the severity of the situation.Remember: There’s no one-size-fits-all response to self-harm or suicide. Assess every incident independently and make necessary adjustments so you can provide the best possible outcome to the student in question.
  4. Don’t violate student privacy
    When using cloud monitoring tools to your advantage, it’s important not to overstep your effort and violate student privacy. If a safety risk is detected, don’t confront a student about it in the presence of their peers. This may expose their mental health status and other details potentially related to the incident. This not only embarasses the student, but may also damage their mental health even further.Most importantly, be transparent about the technologies you’re using and how they’re helping you keep students safe. Make sure students and parents understand they’re not being surveilled and that you’ll only know of their activity if it violates your carefully crafted policies.

With ManagedMethods, you can rest assured that your data is in good hands. Our only interest is in helping you protect your students from self-harm, suicide, cyberbullying, and any other toxic behavior that threatens their well-being. When you use our cloud monitoring solution, you can automate risk detection and better respond to safety signals in your cloud environment.

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