By ROBERT COOK & TIM’M WEST
On March 4 a collection of concerned citizens, nonprofit leaders, and leaders from the private sector gathered in our nation’s capital to launch the Change Direction Initiative to change the story in America about mental health, mental illness and wellness. As the leaders of Teach For America’s Native Alliance and LGBTQ Initiatives, we couldn’t be more thrilled.
We talk a lot in our jobs about the academic and socioeconomic barriers facing our students. Here in Washington, D.C., one-third of adults are functionally illiterate, and the poverty rate in neighboring Prince George’s County has more than doubled in the last 10 years. Statistics like these show us that America’s education system isn’t working for all students, and attaining an excellent education can be significantly harder for those growing up in poverty. But, what we also need to be talking more about – and what Change Direction is helping to amplify – is the critical importance of our students’ mental health and wellness.
A student who lacks either isn’t a student who can show up to the classroom ready to learn – or in some cases, show up at all.
Our hearts are heavy with the students we’ve witnessed throughout our lives – from the children we grew up with to those we work with today – whose futures were robbed by their personal pain and suffering. Suicide is the second leading cause of death – and 2.5 times the national rate – for American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) youth aged 15-24. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide as their straight peers – and questioning youth are three times more likely.
For us, these students are more than just numbers. They’re humans who have left a permanent impression on our hearts.
We both know firsthand the devastating impacts of suicide. Where Robert lives on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the tribal president has issued a state of suicide emergency after losing five young people since December. When Robert was principal of Pine Ridge High School he lost three students to suicide.
Growing up, Tim’m masked his sexual orientation through strict adherence to masculine codes and silence whenever LGBTQ people were taunted. But such “passing” brought guilt that culminated in a suicide attempt at 16. We continue to see this struggle in today’s youth – from Leelah Alcorn to Ronin Shimizu – who aren’t as fortunate as Tim’m was in surviving and growing to have his identity affirmed, allowing him to lead a healthy and open life.
As part of our commitment to the communities we serve, we believe strongly in helping to address health and wellness issues for our students and their families — and for our own corps of teachers. We’ll be continuing this conversation online at our TeacherPop blog, where teachers can find real-life stories and strategies to help address mental health in their classrooms.
The reality is that while AIAN and LGBTQ youth attempt and commit suicide at disproportionately high rates, this is an issue that affects all of our children. One out of every six 9th-through-12th graders nationwide seriously considered suicide in the past year.
We must continue to bring awareness to this issue so our students don’t have to suffer in silence. This is a problem we all must care about.
You can start by learning Change Direction’s 5 Signs of Suffering: withdrawal, agitation, hopelessness, decline in personal care, and change in personality. If you recognize that someone in your life is suffering, reach out and offer help. Show compassion, caring, and a willingness to find a solution when the person may not have the will or drive to help him- or herself.
We are heartbroken by the many students and young people in our communities whose limitless potential was cut short. Please visit www.changedirection.org and pledge to change the story around mental health, mental illness, and wellness.
Robert Cook sits on the board of the National Indian Education Association and is the senior managing director of Teach For America’s Native Alliance Initiative. Tim’m West is managing director of Teach For America’s LGBTQ Initiative.