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When Having a Suicide Prevention Protocol isn’t Enough

wooded area with footpath to a small stone temple

A friend who is a middle-school educator and the parent of two adolescents shared with me this morning that she learned about a student her son’s age who took his own life last week. As expected, it has shaken her and caused her to examine how to respond, both as a teacher and as a parent. She said that the school district has deployed its suicide prevention protocol and, while she is grateful there is one in place, she told me that it feels “mechanistic.” It is definitely important for schools to have a set of tasks and supports available in the event that a tragedy like this happens, but the truth is, it isn’t enough, and without those protocols being grounded in secure relationships that already exist between staff and students and families, it will always feel like a checklist instead of a true, heartfelt response.

We can’t hope to deploy these resources and talking points after the fact in any effective way if we haven’t put in the effort to create strong relationships before something painful happens. Even if we as adults are sincere in our offer to be available for students and families who are grieving and frightened and angry, if we haven’t established – through a pattern of behavior they can trust – a connection before, it is unlikely that those who are in the most pain will feel comfortable coming to us. And if we haven’t processed our own grief and pain, or at least identified them, we will appear to be unsympathetic or simply going through the motions.

My friend noted that, over the years, this particular student had been noticed by many different teachers who wanted to find a way to help him. All too often, protocols and standard practices serve to prevent us from creating caring relationships with students who could use our support. Whether it is a culture that encourages school staff to see certain things as their purview (education and behavior management inside the school setting or hours) and assign others to families (deeper emotional and adjustment issues), or one that encourages them to be hands off for fear of liability, those things stand in the way of building truly supportive connections with students. It may be that class sizes prevent teachers from being able to connect with all of their students or a lack of resources means that there isn’t a skilled, trained staff member who could build a relationship with a student and their family. Whatever the barriers are, if we aren’t working to be in relationship with our students and their families or caregivers, when something like this happens, we won’t be able to provide the kind of support that is most profound and meaningful, even with a list of well-researched actions and scripts in our back pocket.

We know that students learn best when they feel as though they are in connected relationships with their teachers. We also know that they learn best when they are supported at home. Having a suicide prevention protocol might look good from the outside, but if we aren’t using it in the context of foundational relationships with students and families who believe that they can trust us and speak honestly about their struggles, it doesn’t amount to much. It is up to us to do the hard work of creating connections between teachers and students and families so that when there is a tragedy, we can rely on our relationships to hold us all as we grieve.

When “Why?” is Not Important

In general, I think that “why” is the most important question. I think that, if we are hoping to become more mindful, staying curious is one of the first things we do after taking a breath and giving ourselves space. If we can begin to understand why we react with anger or fear or defensiveness to particular situations, we can start to break those old patterns that keep us from living our values.

But sometimes, that space requires more than a breath or two. Sometimes, when our emotions are either incredibly intense or seem to come out of nowhere – like deep sadness and grief or body-shaking anger – the most important thing we can do is just stop. If we jump right in to asking why, we can create a situation where we feel the need to justify or deny our own emotions.

Why am I so sad?  can lead to I shouldn’t be so sad. Nothing happened/it’s not that big a deal/my life is so great.

Why does this  make me so angry? can lead to I’m over-reacting.

If we don’t take the time to let those very strong emotions wash over us, and we immediately begin spinning stories in our heads, we risk giving the emotion more time to do damage and creating a narrative that plays on a loop in our heads. We can think we’re being mindful, but what we are really doing is perpetuating the pain we feel.

So what do we do during that extra-long pause?

Short, concrete observations are incredibly helpful at disarming the intensity of emotions.

I am feeling really sad/angry right now. This seems overwhelming. I don’t want to be feeling this feeling. My chest is really tight and I feel like I might cry/scream. 

Staying in the present and resisting the urge to explain or defend these emotions, while it seems silly, is a powerful tool. And recognizing that we feel like screaming or crying and letting ourselves do that is also a way to release some of the energy (although if you are around other people, I’d recommend screaming into a pillow or something else that muffles the sound – the last thing you want is for someone to come running to ask you what’s wrong because you end up going into explanation/defense mode).

If it feels like not all of the pressure or intensity is released by simply repeating descriptions of what you’re feeling, another helpful thing to add is this:

I won’t always feel like this. I feel like this now, but it won’t last.

If the feeling of sadness or anger persists or comes back over and over again for a period of hours or days, it is important to resist the urge to begin asking why. Instead, please seek help from a professional who can guide you slowly through what you’re feeling as you unravel the emotions. The more you try to dissect it yourself, the more likely you are to engage in self-talk that is harmful or negative.  And, if you are considering self-harm or harming another person, please find help immediately.