Genevieve Olson is a public-health professional.
According to the most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey, approximately 1 in 6 high schoolers in the District reported having attempting suicide in 2017. A closer look at the District’s racial/ethnic minority and sexual minority youths reveals even more startling statistics. Black and Latino high schoolers in the District reported a rate of attempted suicide three times that of white students. And nearly a third of lesbian, gay or bisexual high schoolers reported attempting suicide in the past year, compared with 1 in 8 heterosexual high schoolers.
These powerful statistics quickly convey the severity of these issues to the public and policymakers alike. And when acted upon, these data points can help drive policy solutions and narrow the District’s equity gaps.
Unfortunately, in today’s ever-changing media environment, statistics such as these often remain just that: statistics. Despite the gravitas underlying these numbers, competing crises make it challenging to move from identifying issues to proposing and enacting solutions.
The good news? A wealth of evidence exists around effective programs, policies and strategies for reducing youth suicide — and has for decades. Programs that focus on enhancing protective factors for youths, such as effective coping and problem-solving skills, are backed by rigorous evaluations demonstrating reductions in suicide ideation and attempts for all youths, not only those at highest risk.
Social and emotional learning programs are one such program. These classroom-based interventions create the conditions for positive mental health by building emotional regulation, conflict-resolution and problem-solving skills. Longitudinal evaluations have shown positive trends not only in suicide ideation and attempts but also in academic achievement, drug use and even use of public assistance in adulthood. And social and emotional learning programs are cost-effective. Studies demonstrate that, on average, social and emotional learning initiatives produce an $11 return for every $1 invested — with programs such as Good Behavior Game generating as much as $72.
Why, then, are these programs not implemented at scale? The problem often lies in the perpetual difficulties in making the case for prevention. Attention and money are frequently directed at identifying and addressing youths in mental-health crisis. These targeted supports for high-risk students are important and a key part of mental-health-policy conversations; however, to stem the rise in youth suicide, we need to provide an equal emphasis on the role of promotion and prevention.
Addressing the District’s youth suicide rates will require policy actions that equip schools to address all three “tiers” of support, from prevention to intervention to treatment and referral, as well as a systematic change in attitudes toward the power of prevention. D.C. policymakers and officials have taken many commendable actions to begin to construct this system of supports for D.C. youths. However, as with any system, many more steps are needed.
All 50 states and the District have incorporated social and emotional learning competencies within their early-learning standards (pre-K). However, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning’s recent State Scorecard Scan revealed that 25 states have elevated social and emotional learning further, including competencies beyond preschool into elementary grades and, in the case of 14 states, through high school. The District is not among these states. Given their demonstrated impact on not only mental health but also academic outcomes, the District should similarly consider an expansion of its social and emotional learning standards through high school to lend credence to the foundational importance of social and emotional learning in schools.
Many states have taken additional legislative actions to uplift social and emotional learning, according to analyses from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Neighboring Maryland, for example, has enacted legislation to require certain school personnel to complete training on how to respond to students’ social, emotional and personal development. Washington state has appropriated money from its general fund for a social and emotional learning work group. And, while still pending, Michigan has proposed a bill to require teacher preparation programs to include instruction on social and emotional learning. The D.C. Council should investigate and, if appropriate, pursue similar initiatives.
Addressing youth suicide requires a multifaceted approach. There is no single policy or strategy that will solve the crisis, and, while effective, social and emotional learning is just one piece of the puzzle. In equipping our children with the skills taught through social and emotional learning, however, we can begin to set our youths up for success and move them beyond becoming another statistic.