Promoting Kindness, Mental Health Awareness, and Suicide Prevention Amongst Teens

At the very end of last semester, there was a suicide within our school system. The rumors were that the cause of that suicide as listed in the letter was bullying by other students. Grief counselors were available the week of exams, and an update on social media included an app that could be downloaded to anonymously report bullying.

Last Tuesday was the first day back for students after the holiday break. I assumed that since what happened at the end of last semester was not known to everyone, it would be discussed with the students on their arrival, to include how to report bullying or to help those who threatened self-harm. Apparently, this did not happen.

I only discovered this after my conversation with students once they completed the assignment I came up with on Friday while subbing. They were to complete questions geared towards bullying. Some of those questions included what they considered to be bullying, the effects of bullying, why people bully others, and how to combat it. The answer to the last question concerned me. The overall consensus of students was that the problem of bullying could not be resolved; it was simply the way it was.

We discussed their answers as a group after the students turned in their papers. Most of the students agreed that the reason bullies pick on others is due to low self-esteem or problems at home. With that in mind, we discussed how to approach a bully in a non-confrontational way in order to diffuse the situation.

Then a response to a question broke my heart. Many students expressed that teachers and administrators are just too busy to care about what is going on with them. Students feel like when they seek help, they are blown off or dismissed without the issue being resolved.

During planning period, I took these concerns to the guidance counselors. The onsite officer was in there as well, so I asked him to stay for the conversation. When I shared with the counselors what the students had shared, I was met with concern but also a lack of understanding. Let me explain.

The counselors wanted to assure me that they had never turned any student away who sought after their help. I told them that the students really spoke more about the teachers, and while I understand that teachers have a ton on their plates, it was disheartening to hear that students felt they didn’t care.

The counselors then pursued the question as to what constitutes as bullying. Did the students understand what that meant? Did students know there is an app they can use anonymously? The counselors talked about putting together an announcement to share the answer to these questions. The officer also talked about how not everything is bullying and that back in his day, you just learned how to let it roll off your back. I thanked them all for their time and told them I just wanted to make them aware of the general consensus of the students and headed back to the classroom.

The technical definition of bullying

None of it sat well with me. I processed the information I was given and when the next class came in, they also completed the assignment. They too believed that students were on their own in having to deal with the problem.

I told each class that this was their school. I told them they were going to have to take a stand for each other. Be kind to one another. Look out for each other. Sit with the kid who always sits alone. Give compliments freely. Smile at those who look like they may be having a hard day. Be aware of what each other has going on, and if they are worried someone might harm themselves, to report it. And if they feel like they’re being blown off by the adult they’re trying to talk to, state forcibly that they need the adult’s attention and that this is important to them.

Needless to say, I was upset at the hopelessness these students were facing. I let them know that even though I am a sub, any time they needed to talk to someone for any reason, my door was always open no matter which door it may be. I also let them know that I was available for a hug, a high five, a pat on the back, or a kind word.

I cried on the way home–as a substitute teacher and as a mom. How could we as the adults in these kids’ lives leave them feeling so alone in this? When I spoke to my son later, he agreed with the opinion that teachers often dismiss students or are too busy. And I’m NOT blaming our teachers. I support them 100 percent. I know the obstacles they face every day. What bothers me is that we have put so much emphasis on our teachers teaching for the test, keeping up with paperwork, and drowning them in their overall workload that they don’t have the time to tend to the emotional and social aspects of what our children are facing. Hear me in this when I say: TEACHERS CANNOT DO THIS ALONE!

We as parents and citizens of our communities have to step up and support our kids. We have to empower them to make a stand–not just against the technical definition of bullying, but against tolerance of unkindness–whether it be in our classrooms or on social media or anywhere in between. AND WE HAVE TO SET THE EXAMPLE. Stop bad mouthing each other or tolerating social media hatred. We also have to reassure our kids that we have their backs and are available to them whenever they need us. No child should ever feel like we are too busy to care about their well-being. One student taking his/her life is one student too many.

I’m now in the process of talking to students to form an organization on campus to promote student kindness, mental health awareness, and suicide prevention. I encourage you to find ways within your communities and school systems to combat this problem as well.

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