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Social worker urges schools and teachers to be front line in preventing mental illness

Hartford Courant - 9/7/2023

Seeing a nationwide rise in suicides among teens, social worker Shana Rackmill is urging schools to improve climate to prevent mental illnesses from affecting students.

Rackmill, a school suicide and violence prevention specialist who works for Hartford Healthcare, formerly worked at Conard High School in West Hartford, where she was the crisis clinician and adviser to the school’s Students Against Violence Everywhere (SAVE) Club. She currently works out of her own office, and sees the alarming trend in suicides here in Connecticut on par with the national numbers.

Nationally, between 2007 to 2017, teen suicides doubled. Rackmill said that since the pandemic, the numbers are even worse.

Many suicide attempts and deaths go unreported, Rackmill said, or they are reported as a medical issue, and treated with privacy and confidentiality.

“The [number of] deaths in Connecticut, and in the Greater Hartford area, of youth suicide is much higher than anybody realizes,” she said. “Our national statistics are high, but that’s only what’s getting reported. I know that those statistics are maybe one-third of reality.”

Schools, she said, are the best front line way to reach kids in need of mental health services, but can also play a large role in preventing mental illness before it happens. While most schools have counselors and therapists, there are two key ways that schools could do a better job. Namely, hiring a prevention specialist and training teachers.

“Therapists can’t do much about it, because most kids won’t ever see a therapist,” Rackmill said. “Obviously, parents and family are great, but not every parent hast the ability or capacity. I think the best line of defense is schools, and I think there are some very clear and specific things that schools can do. I don’t think that putting a ton of therapists in schools is the answer. I personally believe, from my experience in schools, I think it’s about teachers having trauma-informed care.”

Teachers, she said, are in the position to potentially notice issues before anyone else, but aren’t trained in what to look for.

“They don’t get any training on mental health,” Rackmill said, adding that it’s also not just about recognizing signs.

“It’s doing things more mindfulness-based in the classroom,” she said. “All of the studies have shown that those things reduce violence, reduce mental health problems, reduce harm towards self and others. It increases grades and increases connected-ness and self-worth. We don’t need to recognize all the warning signs of suicide. That’s not the teachers’ job.”

Instead, teachers should be able to recognize trauma, she said.

“Some of them have slept in a car the night before. Some of them don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” she said. “This is happening in good school districts and the teachers don’t know. If the teachers had that training, not only is that kid going to feel good and respected, that kid’s going to walk away knowing that there’s an adult that cares.”

Alternatively, or in addition to training teachers, Rackmill said she’d like to see a specialized mental health therapist in each school.

“Most of the kids in this country need something, but don’t get it,” she said. “There’s nowhere for them to go in the school, unless there is a specific person, a social worker, assigned to the entire school, and there just isn’t, anywhere. There’s nobody for them to talk to.”

Rackmill said she saw approximately 500 students per year while at Conard, out of a student body of 1,300.

“Most of those were kids who would not have seen a social worker otherwise,” she said. “About 95% of those were serious – some level of trauma or severe depression, maybe not quite at the level of suicide ideality, but some of them were. At least half of the kids that I saw reported at least one panic attack in the last school year, and never told anyone.”

School climate, Rackmill said, also can go a long way to improving mental health. Kids who are natural leaders can be taught to be good examples, which improves mental health and behavior of other students.

“We need to create cultures in the school where the kids feel heard and listened to, and in a community with the teachers,” she said, adding that schools can access many free programs, such as the Sandy Hook Promise, but those are not used enough.

It could be as simple as finding one teacher to champion an after-school club or program.

“Is there one teacher in the school who could run the SAVE club?” Rackmill said. “If schools could create an atmosphere where teachers realize the significant impact they have. Teachers don’t have the training, and it’s not that they don’t want the training, it’s that they just aren’t given it. Making more connections in the school community makes a world of difference. It needs to be a culture. There should be a suicide prevention policy that is not about what to do once a kids says they’re suicidal. Prevention is ‘what do we do all year long to prevent’ or ‘how do we train teachers to help prevent.'”

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