Today I learned that three young people died in our town over the weekend. One, a 19 year old young man, was a suicide. The other young man and woman who died were in their early twenties. The cause of their deaths isn’t officially known yet; the young woman’s mother found them at home with heroin paraphernalia scattered around the room.

“We have some serious thinking to do about how we can take better care of our youth,” a friend said today. I’ll say. And I say, let’s start with schools.
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Why do I say that?

First, there’s the big picture of teen suicide. According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):

●    During 2008, nearly one tenth (8.8 percent) of drug-related emergency department (ED) visits made by adolescents aged 12 to 17 involved suicide attempts
●    Almost three of every four (72.3 percent) ED visits for drug-related suicide attempts among adolescents were made by females
●    Pharmaceuticals were involved in 95.4 percent of drug-related suicide attempts among adolescents

For every teen suicide death, experts estimate there are 10 other teen suicide attempts. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15-to-24-year-olds, and the sixth leading cause of death for 5-to-14-year-olds . The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reported that the 2007 teens While the risk factors for teen and child suicide are complex, they include everything from hopelessness and life stressors, especially interpersonal losses and legal or disciplinary problems, to parent psychopathology, bullying, exposure to the suicide of a family member, friend, or other significant person, a history of physical or sexual abuse, etc.

Now let’s talk about where I think schools fit in. Have you taken a look at the faces of kids leaving school after standardized testing is done? Have you heard kids talk about how they feel before they go into the tests? I recently heard a 6th grader announce to her friend, “Well, I don’t care– I’m just a two.” In NY, the scoring scale is from 1-4. The push is for every student to get a 3 or a 4. This little girl has learned her lesson very well. She’s only a two. Now she has a reason to not try. How long will it be before she decides she has a reason to not go at all?

Maureen Hallinan, writing in Sociology of Education, delivers a simple message: kids who like school do better, i.e., higher academic achievement and a lower incidence of disciplinary problems, absenteeism, truancy, and dropping out of school.

Hallinan says one way to increase students’ academic outcomes “is to increase students’ attraction to school.” (Rocket science, right?)

There’s only one issue. Since the 2002 implementation of NCLB (the No Child Left Behind legislation), student achievement has been measured via standardized tests. With every testing cycle, the expectation is that a school’s aggregate score, and each student’s individual score, will increase. In 2011, that means the stakes are very high indeed. Hallinan says,

While the desire to improve students’ achievement is praiseworthy, the narrow focus of the NCLB deflects attention from the other important aspects of learning. In particular, NCLB fails to take into account the fact that learning is a social psychological as well as a cognitive process.

Let’s say you’re that 6th grader who is “just” a 2. You spend 40 or more hours a week in school. Testing is coming; teachers are crabby and tense. How are you feeling about school these days? Stressed? How are you feeling about yourself?

Now imagine it’s a year later. You’re in 7th grade. Then 8th.

You cannot tell me that all those hours of “just a 2″ don’t start to feel like a dead weight.

You cannot tell me that schools right now are places where kids feel good– about learning, or about themselves.

Am I blaming the skyrocketing national suicide rate on NCLB? Not directly. But I think NCLB is killing the joy of learning. I think it’s killing the chance for teachers to develop genuinely warm, caring relationships with students.

I fear it may be killing the spirit of our youth.

The ESEA is coming up for renewal. Some folks say that if we can get educators involved in the process of re-drawing the legislation– as leaders, not window-dressing– we have a chance at turning things around. The NEA has some interesting perspectives on this. I’ve contacted my senators and representative to ask that they do this. I hope you’ll consider doing so as well.

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For more information about teen suicide & suicide prevention:

http://www.nami.org/Content/ContentGroups/Illnesses/Suicide_Teens.htm

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:

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Image: “Fading Flower” © 2007 Hani Amir Used via Creative Commons License AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved

Sources:

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychology. (2008). Facts for Families: Teen Suicide ( No. 10). Retrieved from http://aacap.org/page.ww?name=Teen+Suicide&section=Facts+for+Families

National Alliance on Mental Illness. Suicide in Youth. Retrieved from http://www.nami.org/Content/ContentGroups/Illnesses/Suicide_Teens.htm

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Office of Applied Studies. (May 13, 2010). The DAWN Report: Emergency Department Visits for Drug-related Suicide Attempts by Adolescents: 2008. Rockville, MD.

Take_Action_in_Yr_Community_MarchApril2010 This newsletter appears courtesy of SAMHSA News, Volume 18 – Number 2, March/April 2010. SAMHSA News is the national newsletter of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. SAMHSA News may be accessed at http://www.samhsa.gov/samhsaNewsletter.

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