- Suicide rates in adolescents are at an all-time high in the United States and currently the 2nd leading cause of death in adolescents ages 10-19 (CDC, 2017). School counselors have an ethical obligation to protect students from unforeseeable harm and are often on the front lines of intervening when a student is at risk of suicide (ASCA Ethical Standards, 2016). To assess suicide risk, many school counselors use risk assessment tools (screeners and assessments), followed by an intervention and referral plan (ASCA Ethical Standards, 2016). A common practice in many suicide protocols is including a parent interview to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the students’ symptoms. Although school counselors may be tasked with determining the level of suicide risk a student is encountering, no research exists on the experience of school counselors when performing screeners and assessments (ie. Suicide protocol). The researcher analyzed the high school counselor’s experience when using suicide risk assessment tools, as well as their work with the parent/ guardian during the suicide risk assessment process through two studies.
Each study utilized interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) as the qualitative research approach. This approach examines a particular moment that may be ordinary, conducting a suicide assessment, and focuses on the significance of what has happened by allowing the individual to reflect and make sense of what has occurred (Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2009). The researcher recruited eight participants in the Clark County School District (CCSD) in Las Vegas, NV, the 5th largest school district in the country (CCSD, 2018). Participants met the following criteria: high school counselors, have received training in suicide screeners and assessments, and administered at least 10 suicide protocols, including the parent interview component. The researcher used Smith and Osborn’s (2003) step-by-step analysis process. Following analysis, a master table was created of themes discovered. Strategies were used to increase trustworthiness, including peer debriefing, research reflexivity, and member checking (Morrow, 2005).
The first study (N=8) explored the experience of school counselors as they engage in suicide screeners and assessments with students. Findings suggest that school counselors experience conflict between their role as a school counselor and reality, feel deep emotional responses, convey the seriousness of focusing on the student in front of them, and experience a need for positive collaborations with other staff members. Additionally, school counselors experience their prior training and education not fully preparing them for the ambiguity of this work.
The second study (N=8) explored the experience of school counselors when working with the parents/guardians of students while conducting suicide screeners and assessments. Findings suggest that when school counselors work with parents/guardians during suicide protocols, they experience the need to understand the parent/guardian while making efforts to develop a relationship with the parent/guardian in order to secure appropriate treatment for the student. Additionally, school counselors experience emotional responses during their work with parents/guardians.
Implications for research are directed towards the growth of knowledge in the experience of school counselors during crisis response, specifically in working with students who are suicidal. The findings provide insight into the profound impact this work has on school counselors, personally and professionally. Implications are directed to practicing school counselors, counselor educators, school districts, families, and other stakeholders working with adolescent populations.