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School Culture and Suicide Prevention

By Linda Binion | November 2022

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It was a dark and stormy night. But this was no mystery novel – I was answering phone calls for the local suicide hotline. One caller in the middle of the night simply wanted to talk about anything. We discussed weather, sports, families and life challenges. At the end of the evening, she thanked me for talking with her. She said she had been thinking about ending her life that night. In one hand she held a phone and in the other a bottle of lethal pills. I was only a graduate student at the time, but I have never forgotten what she said before hanging up. As the sun was just beginning to rise, she said that she had been looking for evidence of kindness and compassion. If she found proof of it, then she would live and continue to fight her mental illness. It was a test and, thankfully, we passed. But I had been totally unaware I was taking one.

Many years later, her words echo in my mind, reminding me of the importance of listening and making a connection with my students. When you hear “suicide prevention,” you are probably thinking about a classroom-based lesson. You may even think about the protocols/assessments you are required to complete for your district. But have you thought about the importance of your building culture in suicide prevention? Students may know the signs of suicide but must have an adult they can trust in telling their story. Suicide prevention requires connections between students and counselors.

The caller’s search for compassion inspired me. All school counselors are busy, and you may wonder how to fit one more thing into your day. Time will always be limited, but by adding a few activities to your existing suicide prevention program, your efforts will be more impactful.

Build Protective Factors

The Search Institute has identified 40 developmental assets that all students need to overcome adversity. The more assets a student has, the more likely they are to avoid risky behavior and have better mental health. In studying how developmental assets relate to prolonged sadness and suicide attempts, researchers found that youth who reported poor mental health had fewer developmental assets than their peers. Schools can strengthen their suicide prevention efforts by helping students increase the number of assets (protective factors) they possess.

With this framework, I formed a student leadership group that met monthly, starting with a brief training focused on developmental assets. We collectively identified which ones to focus on for the upcoming school year. We began by focusing on the external asset of “caring school environment” and planned a series of events to reach every student.

One activity was to connect every student to a school-based activity. We invited club advisors, music teachers, coaches and community leaders to the conversation so that we could develop ways to reach students. Our goal was 100 percent participation. Students who could not find a club of interest were invited to develop one of their own. Since every stakeholder was involved in the conversation, students and parents heard about the importance of belonging from multiple perspectives. Club members and athletes also personally invited students who they knew were not connected to school. We knew that involvement in a school-based activity would help students feel more connected to the building and a little less lonely.

If this activity doesn’t fit your school, you have 40 assets to choose from. They are all broad concepts, which allows you to select one based on student needs. It doesn’t matter which you choose, only that you begin and make a concerted effort to build assets (protective factors) in your school community. Any plan will require multiple attempts to reach students. We had also planned other activities in addition to the one described above.

Remember to involve your teaching staff in your initiatives. We trained our teachers in the use of the developmental assets and spent time at each faculty meeting to share the ways teachers can support ongoing efforts. We even began to measure our success with the number of protective factors students identified as having.

It's All About Trust

At the heart of any suicide prevention program is students’ ability to trust adults with their story. The best time to start building positive relationships with your students is before they even enter your building. Any high school counselor knows that rising freshmen are eager to be in the high school and learn the ins and outs of high school life. I use this eagerness to build student-to-student and student-to-counselor relationships. I divide my freshmen into small groups for a program called summer connections. We play giant-sized outdoor games, answer questions, meet with high school leaders and more. I use this as the first opportunity to develop trust. Each group chooses a family name. We talk about the importance of looking out for one another and how to identify suicidal or homicidal thoughts and actions. I then reunite each group throughout the course of the year for brief activities during our enrichment block.

Be Intentional

The key to suicide prevention is to be intentional. Beyond your classroom prevention lessons, find ways to incorporate suicide prevention into everything that you do. Students don’t necessarily tell us when they need help. Sometimes they are just looking for an adult who demonstrates empathy and kindness over time. Someone they can depend on. Someone who can pass their “test” so that they can tell their story and get the assistance they need.

Linda Binion is a school counselor at King George High School in King George County, Va. Contact her at