Carmel (Indiana) High School is well known for the academic, extracurricular and cocurricular excellence of its students. Underlying this elite performance is a culture of self-induced stress. Ironically, many of our teens who consistently perform with excellence are lacking social-emotional health-coping strategies, which can result in self-harm and even death by suicide.
In 2017, we were faced with the reality of the pressure of young adulthood, with two students dying by suicide. While our school community grieved, we saw a dramatic increase in the number of students with suicidal ideation. By the end of October 2017, counselors had completed 40 Columbia Suicidal Rating Scales with students, and we knew we needed to intensify our efforts. In response, we created the Culture of Care initiative, a comprehensive program to help meet the social-emotional needs of our students, staff and parents.
The daily repetition of the many facets of our Culture of Care initiative allows students to be noticed. We have much to be proud of, but what is most impactful to our students are the everyday small interactions between the students and staff. While our staff works to understand and support the needs of students, more importantly, the students have begun to understand the personal impact they have on one another.
This unity of the 5,400 students and 700 staff is perpetuated through the “Ask, Listen, and Tell” philosophy. While students are not naturally equipped to help and support their peers in need, members of our athletic teams, performance groups, student government and various clubs receive the guidance to simply ask their peers how they are doing, listen to what they have to say, and tell a trusted adult if someone needs help.
While it is a simple concept, providing the common language and structure has made a marked impact on our population. Since we began implementing the philosophy, more than 1,500 students (more than 25 percent of the student body) are equipped to assist their peers in coping with the stress of school and everyday life as a teenager. All incoming freshmen also receive this message as part of their enrollment process, which enculturates them into the caring community at Carmel High School.
Our staff models that caring community by implementing QPR, the suicide prevention protocol of Question. Persuade. Refer. We consider QPR as the staff equivalent of Ask, Listen, and Tell. With the implementation of QPR, we have seen a 75 percent drop in suicide screeners needed between August and October of 2020 as compared to August and October of 2017.
As we implemented our Culture of Care, we wanted to spotlight mental health with a Mental Health Awareness Week, which we have done every year since 2018. In the weeks leading up to Mental Health Awareness Week, instructional coaches run professional development sessions that allow teachers to explore mental health supportive activities and practices before implementing them with students. Our intention is to help teachers feel more comfortable, confident and vulnerable with their students during implementation.
One of these classroom practices is Mindful Minutes. We talk about the “Why” behind these minutes and how they connect to SEL and educational neuroscience. We discuss what is happening inside student bodies and brains and how that connects to supporting student learning and the whole child/student.
Mental Health Awareness Week spawned other activities we have incorporated throughout the year. During finals weeks, therapy dogs visit during lunch and students spend time unwinding and enjoying the love a dog can give. On a broader spectrum, we implemented announcements and activities at each home football and basketball game to inform patrons about the impact that mental health has on an entire community.
Parents are an integral part of a child’s social emotional being, and we partner with them in the support of mental health. To ensure they have the necessary resources and tools, we created a Mental Health Awareness Newsletter with ideas on how to help children navigate adolescence including parenting tips and how parents can take care of themselves as well. As a means of providing additional information in an alternate forum, twice a year we hold Mental Health Awareness Nights and bring in experts from the community to share their expertise in various topics affecting the teenage population.
Students are not the only focus of the Culture of Care initiative. With a staff nearing 700 adults, it is easy to feel disconnected outside of the individual departments. We have created adult-interest clubs for staff to come together based on mutual interests ranging from a dinner club, card club, bowling nights and many other interests.
In the fall and spring, we sponsor family pitch-ins that include games and activities that promote a “Greyhound Family” atmosphere. We also encourage our staff to complete and share “You are Great” notes with one another. The positive reaction to the notes continues to be uplifting to both the giver and receiver. We know that “together we are better,” and that takes intentional partnership between school, home and the community.
We also know that while many aspects of our school receive public attention, we believe that it is the small, daily intentional acts that make the most difference in the most lives. And for that, we are committed to continue to cultivate a Culture of Care.
Tom Harmas, Ed.D, is principal of Carmel High School in Carmel, Indiana. Earlier this year, he was named Indiana High School Principal of the Year.