Suicide Prevention and School Culture – The Power of Us





The Samaritans of Rhode Island was founded in 1977 and since 1985, after a teen cluster suicide impacted a local community, The Samaritans have been charged by the Rhode Island Legislature to provide suicide prevention training to schools in Rhode Island.

Not bound by health/mental health status; third party reimbursements or person’s ability to pay, it was recognized then by legislative leaders that The Samaritans was in a unique position to help break the stigma associated with Rhode Islanders asking for help. The gateway to care was the internationally recognized, nonjudgmental, active listening model called befriending.  In subsequent years, The Samaritans built upon this nonjudgmental listening model to become one of the state’s most trusted names in suicide prevention education.

The legislative mandate was to target and train School Health teachers in grades nine through twelve to deliver this suicide prevention training to students under the auspices of the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), while only being supported with a very meager amount of funds. It was later recognized that this well intentioned mandate had a focus that was too narrow and the financial support was far too limited for the school training to even attempt accomplishing the intent of the legislative mandate.


Since that time in 1985, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Surgeon General have recognized the lack of connectedness as a risk factor for suicide.  Educating students and the school community to learn more about suicide prevention and ways to encourage a child to find a trusted adult with whom he or she would feel comfortable speaking about suicidal ideation or other personal, family or school challenges has become a growing priority. Many obstacles would and continue to stand in the way of reaching those goals.

Rhode Island schools, and schools throughout the nation, were then and are now faced with growing complexity in the lives of school aged youth while, simultaneously, there are more rigorous demands for schools to improve, demonstrate, and report growth in the academic success for students. Acknowledging this, the Samaritans and RIDE worked to devise and support a more substantially comprehensive array of training offerings beyond the state mandate. RIDE was able to augment the limited state funding with, then available federal dollars and the Samaritans began to expand training to parents, community organizations and groups, as well as all staff and administrators in schools. This need to expand and improve has been a constant for some time now and the Samaritans continues to take on this evolving and challenging quest despite fewer funds for this expanded training due to the unfortunate discontinuation of the previously available supplemental federal funds.

The reason for this expansion was for the purpose of focusing on the engagement of wider population of training recipients, beyond secondary health teachers, as that need was well documented and compelling.  By the late 1980’s data collection reporting methods had become more prevalent regarding youth health risk issues. Since 1988 the Rhode Island Department of Health has administered Student Health Surveys, beginning with one they initially devised and then in the early 1990’s they began to administer the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) conducted every two years by the CDC. Every survey conducted from that time to now has revealed that at least 10% of Rhode Island High School students have attempted suicide. There have been changes in that 10% figure, in 2013 RI Kids Count published that the rate had increased to 14%, in 2015the rate was 11%, and the most recent 2017 YRBS Kids count reported the rate at 10.5%.

Let us think about and understand what is stated above. For nearly a generation 10% or more of our Rhode Island school aged youth have attempted to end their lives. The recent October enrollment of Rhode Island Public schools is 142,2014 students and the enrollment figure has been at least 140,000 most years; therefore, we can estimate that more than 14,000 of our precious young people will attempt suicide each school year. That also means that many, many students come to school not caring about their own life never mind caring about their assignments, or attention to school demands. That should be a staggering statistic and a frightening reality sufficient to mobilize our society, yet, despite this data and other findings and recommendations we have yet to respond in a comprehensive, strategic manner for nearly three decades.

The CDC has now declared suicide as the second leading cause of death among school aged youth and young adults.  The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the lack of connectedness as the single most prevalent risk factor for suicide.  Also for quite some time Education Reform researchers and advocates have stressed the importance that the culture and climate of schools; creating a sense of attachment and a sense of belonging among the members of the school community are a vital prerequisite to high quality learning outcomes and without these connections and supports in the learning community even the best efforts to provide good instruction and effective assessments are vastly diminished for many learners.

In 2008 The Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA published; Community Schools: Working Toward Institutional Transformations. In this work, compiled with decades of research, going back as far as 1904, acknowledging the necessity for healthy, supportive culture and climate in schools. The document written under the auspices of Howard Edelman and Linda Taylor, co-Directors, and their myriad of co-contributors opens with the following statement:

“If all youngsters are to have an equal opportunity to succeed at school and in life, schools must move significantly beyond prevailing approaches to school improvement. Needed is fundamental institutional transformation that promotes effective collaboration among schools, families, and communities. Such a transformation is essential to enhancing achievement for all, closing the achievement gap, reducing dropouts, and increasing the opportunity for schools to be valued as treasures in their neighborhood.”

Also in that document was this quote:

“School systems are not responsible for meeting every need of their students. But when the need directly affects learning, the school must meet the challenge”.  Carnegie Task Force on Education

Despite the decades of data documenting the spiraling need to act, despite the warnings from the WHO, the Surgeon General and the CDC, despite the extensive research, writing, and dissemination of Mental Health and Education Reform information, our major systems are mired in repeating and using/wasting valuable resources on the same redundant and ineffectual transactional approaches which are failing to ensure the future well-being and promise for productive lives for all our youth and young adults. All the best practice and outcome measurement models do not work if they do not operate in a supportive school and community environment.

What is needed now is applying existing and evolving innovative thought, building transitional efforts, leading to the transformative and courageous leadership which will support and sustain dynamic infrastructures which avail themselves to the all existing strengths, assets, and resources through  comprehensive, and collaborative strategic partnerships among schools, communities and families.



In 2009 the Samaritans began to offer a second strand to the traditional school based training offering mirroring newly developed comprehensive prevention approaches, and strategies linking mental wellness with innovative school reform initiatives. It was focused and branded on “Building Connections to Promote Healthy Behaviors and Academic success”.  This began the Samaritans’ effort to further augment the original training offering by sharing a new focus on the understanding of the transitions that help create the future vision necessary to a plan design, and implement and sustain more and varied transformational approaches for schools to offer which were specific to their own needs, values, and culture, necessary for schools to create their own learning community to promote healthy behaviors and learner success.

A familiar phrase that became popular a few decades ago and which has been used over and over again in many publications, forums and settings, especially when the topic is about helping young people refrain from risky behaviors, and attain healthy successful lives is; “IT TAKES A COMMUNITY TO RAISE A CHILD.” We have all heard it and probably used it as if making the statement will mystically soothe our souls, solve our issues and accomplish our intentions to raise healthy, accomplished, responsible citizens who will attain long term success in life. But, as popular and compelling the phrase may be, it is merely a slogan and not a tangible, actionable concept until we can answer:


Becoming transformational is a difficult, complex, and requires an on-going, evolutionary process identifying the needs and priorities specific to each setting, and not an one time effort/event and not a product that can be purchased and installed monolithically in an existing setting after a brief training offering. It is created through mutual intent and is an evolutionary process. In his 1994 book, “Building Community in Schools”, Tom Sergiovanni states that “community building must be the heart of any school redesign effort”, all other school efforts to improve; curriculum, assessments, school governance, attendance, graduation rates, professional development, student behavior, parental involvement, etc. “must rest on a foundation of community building”.

Community building is powerful. When we commit to it, it moves us form a collection of ‘I’s’ to a collective of ‘we’. It allows us to recognize that all resources; financial, physical, intellectual, and human can be used to foster cooperation and collaboration to create a synergy of efforts to accomplish mutually agreed to goals. These efforts are not based on contracts but on commitments to one another. It requires defining the cultural bedrock for the community and the capacity for designing and re-designing structures and infrastructure for the purpose of evolutionary transformation capable of responding to existing and future issues and needs. The community members connect with one another and draw on the sustained energy they feel from their interdependency to identify issues, focus on priorities, and solve and resolve problems.

Using a process of collaborative inquiry among the members of the learning community is a process in which ‘the collective of we’ assists in identifying needs and issues of concern and collectively engage in not seeing them not as problems but as opportunities to maintain and restore progress and this process actually helps to build and grow the community. Addressing risky behaviors, academic needs, and learning challenges, are best accomplished when the member groups of the community feels a sense of attachment and belonging and comfort with one another. Creating the opportunity for the voice and participation of the community members to be heard in identifying, prioritizing, and successfully resolving issues builds a sense of competence, confidence, and enhances the capacity of the members that are beneficial individually and collectively, not only in the present day circumstance but throughout the future circumstances of life.

As the noted author and management expert, Peter Drucker wrote in his best- selling book, Managing for Success:

“Results are obtained by exploiting opportunities, not by solving problems. All you can hope for by solving problems is to restore normality, to eliminate the restriction on the capacity to obtain results. The results themselves must come from the exploitation of opportunities.”

Looked at together, as a community, it is possible to create a supportive environment for suicide prevention initiatives to have meaning and thrive.

 A New Three R’s for Learning and Life: Respect, Relationships and Results.

Respect; Everyone, including children, want to be to be respected. We often get what we give, so ‘pay it forward’. If we give respect in all of our daily interactions to those that we know and those that we meet, it will be more likely we will be able to receive the respect we seek.

Relationships; It is important to note that relationships are the most plentiful and free resource available to us and our community.  We are social beings and seek to have connections to those around us. Yet we often see circumstances where simple communication and cooperation among individuals does not occur. This lack of relationship building is usually based on personal, petty preferences and biases, thereby wasting the potential of this resource and the potential opportunities it could develop. By focusing on building trust in our relationships, and putting petty biases aside, we can truly attain new information and learning and discover knowledge of new things and concepts that may surprise ourselves, impress the community, maybe even amaze the world.

Results; Everyone everywhere has to demonstrate results in their work. Simply ask; would the potential to attain and sustain impactful, essential, and necessary results for the long-term be better accomplished with or without respectful broad based relationships?


Another benefit of the collaborative relationship-based process in the creation of the learning community is that it enhances the acquisition of the ‘traits of resiliency’ for the group and its’ members. Resiliency in engineering refers to the ability to withstand destructive forces. ‘Human Resiliency’ can be described as the capacity to bounce back from negative life environments and events. The research on resiliency began in 1949 and has continued for several decades since, beginning with the efforts of Emmy Werner and Ruth Smith, sociologists and anthropologists, who studied the lives of thousands of young persons from many countries and cultures throughout the world and how those individuals overcame multiple risk factors to transcend their previous existing difficult life settings and negative influences and were still able to make the adaptations necessary to lead healthy and productive lives.

Bonnie Bernard, who studied and wrote extensively on resiliency research, published a seminal article which coalesced multiple resiliency research findings and then identified four prominent groups of traits of resilient people. They are: Problem Solving, a life-long skill which can be acquired, learned and practiced from very young age, even by toddlers and pre-school aged children, and then throughout life; Pro Social Skills, to develop healthy relationships among people of varied cultures, and age groups; Sense of Personal Agency, Self-Efficacy and Autonomy, the confidence to learn and grow in life settings, and Sense of Purpose, Hope and Future, the strongest traits and predictors of long term life success. These traits are not necessarily taught or imposed on the community but are learned and acquired as they are modeled, demonstrated, and continuously practiced in the collaborative process..

Allowing and ensuring that members of the school community become aware of traits such as this, then discussing them to build a broader understanding of such concepts, and then having a purposeful dialogue to develop a shared meaning of the concepts among the members of the community are all extremely beneficial and essential in establishing and maintaining the long-term future culture of the learning community.  They are traits that once acquired are beneficial for life-long learning and future success.


Acknowledging that almost all schools currently operate in the ‘old culture’ as traditional, transactional systems, which were essentially designed for public schools prior to the beginning of the 20th Century. Schools still perform numerous, traditional previous tasks while also taking on additional new tasks, without regularly using protocols to determining which tasks are still worthwhile or beneficial, thereby straining and struggling to make use of all available resources and energy to perform the growing myriad of tasks, and doing so within existing time bound schedules and structures. It must be understood that taking on the courageous challenge to begin the transitional efforts to become a vital transformational learning community is seen as, at the least, improbable by some, and impossible by many others. This is especially true in the current day, when the heavy emphasis on standardized test scores is almost singularly determined as being the ultimate measure of learner success.

To begin the thinking around the transition consider an example of what a learning community could offer that is designed for improving learning and well-being for all students, where building learning supports into the school ethos and culture including; academic, social, emotional, and medical are available through the school setting. This can be seen in the work of Howard Edelman and Linda Taylor at UCLA, mentioned previously, as they organized their research-base into six related arenas relevant to transformational school improvement: (1) enhancing classroom teachers’ capacity for addressing problems and for fostering social, emotional, intellectual and behavioral development, (2) enhancing school capacity to handle transition concerns confronting students and families, (3) responding to, minimizing impact of, and preventing crisis, (4) enhancing home involvement, (5) outreaching to the community to build linkages and collaborations, and (6) providing special assistance to students and families (Adelman & Taylor, 2006a, b).

Many traditional schools are aware of and even have parts of many these elements. And they do not necessarily reject any as not being beneficial, and perhaps wish they could do more, and perhaps even dream of being able to do so. Having the dream is a start; doing comes next! There is an elementary school that has a large banner hanging on the wall of their auditorium that says it well; DREAMS ARE NOT WHAT YOU HOPE FOR, DREAMS ARE WHAT YOU NEED TO WORK FOR!

So, let’s think about how working for the dream begins, let’s think about how the transition begins.


 Acknowledging that all schools across Rhode Island are somewhat, or exceedingly, different, and acknowledging that ‘transformative school improvement’ is built on the ‘bedrock of community’ which is a long term deliberative process, not a monolithic model or a product that is purchased and installed, it must be acknowledged that initial engagement of parties in the process needs to begin with unifying the community. It is best to consider beginning from a long-term strategic standpoint and that process begins with agreeing on; core Values, a unifying and inspiring Vision of the future depicting the loftiest future ambitious desired as being fully operational now, and a unifying Mission which frames and guides the development of immediate goals, objectives, strategies and actions which are prioritized and which will be adequately resourced.

Values are vital to community building. All social structures; families, neighborhoods, communities, large and small businesses, government and non-profit agencies, all function and maintain productivity best when commonly held value systems guide and unify the purpose of their efforts. Values will determine the character and characteristics the school community.

Consider this from Tom Sergiovanni from “Building Community in Schools” when embarking on the initial steps toward ‘transformational, learning community based school redesign efforts’



Unless thinking and values connect vitally with the continuum of experience in human lives, the ideas quickly become disembodied, unthinking, inhuman. People lose sight of who they are and what their roots are… Every step forward in intellectual growth should be accompanied by a strengthening of moral perspective and a more fully activated life of learning in pursuit of human ends. Every word and symbol, each gesture that makes meaning, must send its taproot down into this reality: We go to school to create the great society, a world in which we can all live freely and responsibly to our greatest potential.

Commonly created and held Values become the ‘tap root’ to the establishment and shape the growth of the learning community as it transitions from the ‘transactional, struggling, redundant old culture’ to the ‘ever evolving, dynamic, responsive future culture’ ensuring the well-being and success of each learner.

Your Vision defines your desired future. It illuminates the desired future sate of the learning community, opens people’s eyes, captures their hearts to drive the behaviors, creativity, engagement and determination of everyone learning and working in the school community.

Your Mission is a clear statement that defines the immediate purpose and functions of the school, the competencies and unique characteristics it possesses and the services to be provided to key stakeholders now and into the near future. It also reflects the future thinking of the Vision, ensures the operational support and infrastructure and climate to follow, preserve, and institutionalize the Values of the community.


We are in a time when there is incredible division in our nation and divisive forces which seem to run in total opposition to what is being proposed in this discussion – to build community anew as presented above. We hear and witness strong opposition, and even open social conflicts based regarding many issues and topics, grounded only on the strongly held beliefs of one side, and deflecting or ignoring the beliefs of others, and done so as an automatic default response mechanism. This is what is now being described as “new tribalism”, which is perpetuated by groups only listening and siding with other like-minded individuals, without regard for allowing even minor discussion or minimal acknowledgement or appreciation of other thoughts. And this break in our social structure is often based on the need to maintain power and control, which in and of itself is the underlying cause for conflict, neglect and many forms of abuse, and harm.

However, what is known from the past, as world societies developed and conflicts arose, is that people of good will and good intentions coming together and collectively responding to the conflict of opposing forces can create a new, better synthesis of efforts to rejuvenate and revitalize constructive and productive social constructs that transcend the previous malaise and destructive influence of the oppositional, antithetical, competing forces.

On a humorous note we could look at it in this way; there once was a politically satirical comic strip called “Pogo”. One day the Pogo comic strip character was portrayed standing in the front of a row boat, mimicking the pose of George Washington in the iconic painting, “Washington Crossing The Delaware”, and Pogo was sardonically paraphrasing the notable quote of Commander Oliver Hazard Perry, from the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812; that satiric paraphrase was,” WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY, AND THEY ARE US”!      


It sometimes seems like this satiric ‘prophecy of Pogo’, “WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY, AND THEY ARE US”!, has come to fruition, especially for many who have worked long and hard in their professions on behalf of the many children and their families that need the capable, responsive supports that often exist and which could be of help but for institutionalized barriers. What barriers? They include but are not limited to poor coordination of services, or long ignored gaps in service, or other resources and relationships that merely need purposeful, constructive, intentional connections made that can take them from the ‘old culture’ to the ‘transformational future culture.’

Let us consider a positive take on this, if ‘the enemy is us” then we have already identified our main nemesis. So We need to begin the community building process that will move us from the ‘collection of I’s’ to the ‘collective of we’! ‘WE’ can, and need to be the solution, as well. We need to stipulate the Values that will guide and strengthen, and unify future efforts. We need to create the Vision that will inspire the creativity of others, harness the energy, influence, and capacity of the people necessary to define and attain our future state. We need to develop our Mission which will define our immediate purpose, functions, goals, and actions. When We begin, continue, and sustain the building of The Community We can be inspired and surprised as the ‘collective of we’ continues to discover THE POWER OF US!


The legislative mandate created in 1985, for The Samaritans of Rhode Island and RIDE to work together, is as relevant today as it was 33 years ago.  At the same time, the dynamics of trust created by the partnership, to find innovative ways in which to reach and educate new generations within multiple communities and platforms, is first and foremost a testament to the belief that when working toward a common goal and vision, fostering a supportive environment works.   Suicide prevention education must remain a priority today and in the future.

Submitted by;

George McDonough

Husband, father, grandfather, retired educator, life-long learner, Board Vice- President of Rhode Island Parent Support Network, longtime advisor, supporter and consultant to The Samaritans of Rhode Island, School Change Coach; Center for Secondary School Redesign (CSSR), and lifelong citizen of Rhode Island.