The Role of Parents and Schools in Suicide Prevention: Interview with Maureen Underwood

This interview is part 2 of 10 in the After School Social Change with Technology Interview Series. Part 2 features Maureen Underwood, Clinical Director for the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide (SPTS).

“Even if one family didn’t have to go through that difficult journey, it would be worthwhile.”

For young adults ages 15–24, the second leading cause of death is suicide. Despite its prevalence, many are unaware of how widespread this problem is until it’s too late.

“We taught our kids to drive safe with seatbelts, talked to them about drinking and driving and taught them to stop drop and roll. We never knew we had to talk to them about suicide prevention,” says Maureen Underwood.

Maureen is the Clinical Director for the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide (SPTS). The organization was co-founded by Scott Fritz and Don Quigley — two friends and fathers who both lost children to suicide within several months of each other. Their mission is to provide information to parents, teachers, students and mental health professionals to foster a better array of mental health services.

While it’s hard to isolate specific causes of suicide, there have been promising results of suicide prevention training. “We do know that some of the latest statistics from the government show that there has been a decrease in the (suicide) attempt rates in the states where they have devoted financial resources to suicide prevention programming,” Maureen says.

The organization, thanks to the hard work of Maureen and others, is to credit for leading the initiative to involve educators in this battle. “When the organization started, there were no requirements in the country for educators to have professional development credits in suicide awareness. Our organization was the first in the country to be able to work with our legislature in New Jersey to get a law passed that requires teachers to have two hours of training in a five-year cycle. There are now around 28 states with similar requirements.”

Maureen believes that communication and education are significant tools in the fight against teen suicide. Asked if there are ways social media can help prevent these instances, Maureen says, “I think it can help with kids not feeling isolated.” Because of isolation, many teenagers go through life without ever talking about their struggles and hide all signs that they are considering self-harm.

“There are so many kids that have struggled in silence. To be able to talk with someone who understands what you’re going through; I believe just that connection can be important and life-saving,” Maureen says. After School offers 24/7 live counselors to chat with teens who show warning signs on the app. Due to the private nature of the network, which allows students to post without revealing their name, they feel comfortable being who they actually are and sharing their struggles and thoughts. This provides an important opportunity to intervene and provide help that would not be available if the teen was forced to reveal his or her name.

In addition to the potential of social media to provide a supportive and sympathetic audience, faculty and parents can play an important and direct role in recognizing warning signs and provide support to at-risk youth.

Many wonder what the role or responsibility of a school faculty member is when it comes to the overall safety and well-being of a child when not on school grounds. The answer to this question doesn’t matter nearly as much as the potential impact school staff can have on the lives of a student. Organizations like the SPTS are helping them to recognize ways to help. “We try to simplify the process. We’re not asking faculty to determine if a child is suicidal; we’re just asking them to notice if they see any of the warning signs.” Although teachers may spend the most time with a student, Maureen says that everyone who works at a school should have the awareness and ability to provide assistance and notice warning signs. “Sometimes it’s the bus driver who is closest to a child, in other instances it’s someone who works in the cafeteria.” If a staff member recognizes these signs, Maureen encourages the staff to “Tell the child you’re worried and make a referral to your school resources staff.”

Parents have the most opportunities to help in suicide prevention, but important conversations that can lead to proper care and prevention often never happen. “You can’t be frightened of suicide, you have to see it as a life crisis and you have to become a partner; helping them get the treatment and services they need,” Maureen says.

Asked what parents need to know in order to help their child, Maureen says, “Parents need to know that it’s okay to talk about suicide; you’re not going to plant the idea in their head. Kids are thinking about it.” Maureen also advises parents to pay attention to school performance, appearance, and the way they are talking about events in the future to recognize signs. “Sometimes parents don’t want to see the warning signs. They minimize a child’s distress. It’s hard to see the world through your child’s eyes. Something that seems like the end of the world to a child may not seem like that to us. It’s important to listen to our kids and not be judgmental and not filter it through our own perception.”

The SPTS has free resources for faculty and parents, including the Act of FACTS training to make educators partners in suicide prevention hosted on the SPTS University website. For more information on the SPTS, and their training and resources, visit SPTSUSA.Org. We’d like to thank Maureen Underwood for her hard work and the efforts of the entire SPTS team.

About After School

After School, a private social network built to create social change and enable communication among high school students, is the largest social network for teenagers. After School aims to improve the lives of users and their communities while providing an enjoyable and safe place to share with others.

Now serving millions of teenagers in over 70% of U.S. high schools, After School has turned the battle against cyberbullying and threats into industry-leading innovations that provide users with unique opportunities, including 24/7 access to live counselors.