Preventing Student Suicide in New York State

High school students (photo: Benjamin Kanter / Mayoral Photo Office)


This month, as our kids return for another pandemic school year, there has never been a more important time to have an honest conversation about mental health.

As a member of the New York Assembly Education Committee, I have heard countless parents and young people talk about how the pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing psychological stresses of depression and anxiety. These add to the pressures young people have faced for years, from dealing with identity issues to addressing bullying.

Unfortunately, children, families and schools do not always have the training or resources to face these challenges or identify when they become dangerously unmanageable. It is high time we gave our schools the tools they need to provide appropriate mental health resources, support populations at risk and, above all, prevent suicide.

Students today are much more likely to report poor mental health than previous generations. Between 2007 and 2016, pediatric emergency room visits for mental health issues increased by 60%. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among young people aged 10 to 24, and LGBTQ youth are particularly at risk. Of the nearly 40% of transgender Americans who report having attempted suicide, 92% did so before the age of 25.

Preventing suicide among young people is not just an intellectual matter for me. I tried to kill myself when I was young. Looking back, I recognize that I was faced with a deep stress of identity and isolation. Fortunately, I came through this dark period and continued to lead a meaningful and successful life.

For me, having a support system was key to my mental health recovery. Children can express their vulnerability when they are around people they trust. That’s why I introduced the Student Suicide Prevention Act (A7762), which will give schools the support they need to reach students of all backgrounds and backgrounds. It provides a framework for teacher training, mental health resources, and policies and procedures for suicide prevention, intervention and postvention. Legislation draws on national models while creating space for schools to tailor information to local needs.

Currently, 19 states require suicide prevention training for school staff, and 13 states specify that this training takes place annually. New York is one of 15 states that encourage, but do not require, such programming. Our lack of leadership has significant consequences: a third of our schools do not have suicide prevention policies in place, and only 2% of existing policies specifically target LGBTQ youth.

Teachers are often a resource for children who feel isolated. They spend hours each day with their students and develop deep relationships by offering them advice and helping them to develop their self-esteem. As a result, they are often the first, and best, to see when our children need extra help.

Their insight is especially important because not all who are in pain withdraw or disengage from school activities – which we generally associate with signs of difficulty. I was the president of my high school class, but I still needed help.

It is difficult to talk about these issues, both politically and personally. I have never publicly shared my story before. But I know that open and honest communication is a necessary step to break the cycle and better support our young people. With the right policies in place, we can give young people the support they need to get through tough times, recognize their own strength and envision a better future.

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Assembly member Danny O’Donnell represents parts of Manhattan. On Twitter @Danny_ODonnell_.

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