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When Teachers Are First Responders

When the Palo Alto Unified School District lost five teenagers to suicide between May 2009 and January of 2010, community members formed a multidisciplinary task force to document the city's response to the deaths and to compile an action plan for the future, according to a wire story. The task force's recently released report describes a "comprehensive, community-based mental health plan for overall youth well-being in Palo Alto."

Most of the report's 22 recommendations address educating teachers about mental health so they can intervene with depressed and at-risk students and prevent future suicides. An equally critical recommendation, though, is the "Grief Counseling for Those Impacted by Suicide." The task force suggests "training programs for teachers, counselors and staff on how to help students and each other following a death."

I couldn't agree more. During the three years that I taught in a suburban high school, the community experienced three suicides. There had been two additional suicides in the two years before I came to teach there. Each time, the faculty requested guidance on what we should do with our students when we learned of a suicide in the middle of the school day. Continue classes? Try to talk about it? Sit in silence? We were told by one district mental health professional that we should "say whatever we felt comfortable with," and that we "couldn't say anything wrong." Teachers did not find this advice particularly helpful.

Though communities may intensify their suicide prevention efforts, schools are nonetheless likely to experience a student death at some point, and teachers are often the "first responders" in these crises. Some students may be shocked and grieving, while others may be unaffected. However students react, teachers want to help their classes through a tragedy, but as Palo Alto's task force points out, they need guidance on how to do so.

Update: Teacher blogger Anthony Mullen weighs in by asking what teachers can do for depressed and emotionally troubled students.

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