January/February 2019

Practical PR: Student suicides and the importance of SEL communications

By Elise Shelton
Elise Shelton is chief communications officer for the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System, Clarksville, Tenn. and a past regional vice president of the National School Public Relations Association.

On any given day in the United States, 3,041 high school students attempt suicide. Of that number, 524 succeed.

The day after one of these tragedies, school administrators arrange for grief counselors to talk with students affected by the loss. The superintendent and principal struggle with appropriate words to offer students, parents, teachers, staff, and community. The district communications office is, or should be, consulted to help draft messages to these stakeholders.

A student suicide might not have shown up in the news in the past, but that isn’t always true today. News editors and producers don’t see it as taboo, feeling instead that they cannot turn a blind eye to what is already saturating social media. Thus, school districts also are being called on to confirm and comment on student suicides, creating another vital function for the communications office.

When providing expertise for any communication activity related to student suicides, school public relations professionals should know what their districts are doing regarding social and emotional learning (SEL).

Defining SEL

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, SEL is the process through which children and adults:

  • Acquire and apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions;
  • Set and achieve positive goals;
  • Feel and show empathy for others;
  • Establish and maintain positive relations; and
  • Make responsible decisions.

Identifying the need for SEL communications

SEL became a priority in the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System [in Tennessee] … after focus groups told us that teachers and administrators needed more support for student mental health and after experiencing several student suicides last school year.

In addition, a survey of our middle and high school students indicated that the need was even greater than staff and parents had thought. Results showed that:

  • Only 47 percent of students agreed that “I can explain my feelings to others”;
  • 56 percent agreed that “I feel like I belong at school”; and
  • 54 percent agreed that “I know how to handle stress.”

Collaborating for better understanding

Our office worked with instructional staff to develop an action plan for communication about this issue and about our SEL initiatives. A primary activity was development of a series of five videos which included students talking frankly about healthy ways to handle stress and school counselors describing how they can help. Other critical components of the plan included communication about district resources and promoting the availability of assistance to children and parents.

Clarksville-Montgomery also created professional learning communities with teams to focus on SEL in all 39 schools, a strategy focused on personal interaction and engagement. One of their activities is a monthly study session by principals and other administrative leaders of the book Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience. Praised by many educators, this book offers strategies for dealing with teacher stress and burnout.

Recently, when we learned that students were having to wait three to six months to see a therapist, the district also partnered with the local Mental Health Cooperative to recruit school-based therapists. Our communications office helped to promote job opportunities and recruit therapists through posts on social media.

Applying SEL skills and knowledge

There is no question that the topic of mental health is sensitive, but it couldn’t be more relevant than it is today. The ability to navigate life with a healthy social and emotional approach may be harder than it once was, but the goals are to impart the way for students to attain the needed skills and provide parents and educators with supports to help them.

School public relations professionals … must be aware of this issue and the importance of SEL, what our districts are doing regarding SEL and how we can help to advance SEL initiatives.

Additional resources

Clarksville-Montgomery County School System has identified a number of resources for parents and community members:

  • The Family School Connection on Social and Emotional Learning describes how to help students acquire and apply important skills and attitudes.
  • September is National Suicide Prevention Month, Mental Illness Awareness Week is observed in October, and May is Mental Health Month.
  • The number of children and adolescents admitted to U.S. children’s hospitals for thoughts of suicide or self-harm more than doubled during the last decade. (Source: American Academy of Pediatrics, May 4, 2017)
  • [Today’s students] “ are the post — 9/11 generation, raised in an era of economic and national insecurity. They’ve never known a time when terrorism and school shootings weren’t the norm. They grew up watching their parents weather a severe recession, and perhaps most important, they hit puberty at a time when technology and social media were transforming society.” (Source: Time, Nov. 7, 2016)
  • Half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and 75 percent begin by age 24. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. (Source: National Alliance on Mental Illness)

Editor’s note

Reprinted with permission from the copyrighted article Trend Tracker: Student Suicides and the Importance of Social and Emotional Learning Communications from The NSPRA Network e-newsletter, published by the National School Public Relations Association, 15948 Derwood Rd., Rockville, MD 20855;; 301/519-0496. No other reprints allowed without written permission from NSPRA.

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