English Learners and the Risks of Suicide.

Author:Rishel, Teresa


In reviewing the research on adolescent and young adult suicide, a distinctive set of characteristics that describe suicidal ideation and behaviors coincides with literature about the experiences of English Learners (ELs). We found, however, no research that examines the relationship specifically between the characteristics of suicidal adolescents and ELs' responses to these experiences. Existing research related to ELs in the affective dimension mainly supports the effects of discrimination and/or depression (Cristini, Scacchi, Perkins, Santinello, & Vieno, 2011; Huynh & Fuligni, 2010; Patel, Tabb, Strambler, & Eltareb, 2014; World Health Organization [WHO], 2014). Connecting the two areas of research may enable a proactive stance in making implications for recognizing language learners who may be at risk of suicide or other suicide-related behaviors such as eating disorders, self-cutting, depression, reckless driving, and sexual promiscuity, among others (Kann et al., 2014).

Elevated risk factors for suicide and other self-destructive behaviors include students who are "viewed as different from their peers" and students who are "often subject to exclusion, harassment and discrimination" (Society for the Prevention of Suicide [SPTS], 2015, Slide 9), two descriptions that align with the experiences that many ELs endure. At issue is students' emotional health and safety, the impact of schooling, and the negative interactions that occur at school (Rishel, 2007). In order to educate diverse student populations, it is imperative that public scholarship include discussions on ELs and how the learning environment may influence their susceptibility towards suicidal activity, because globally, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 15-29 (WHO, 2014, p. 22).

Especially important for educators and school personnel who experienced the death of a student by suicide, the gripping aftermath of reflecting on what could have or should have been done often weighs heavily in their minds and hearts. We can sigh at the disheartening and unnecessary loss of lives, yet we must also address the circumstances surrounding their ultimate decision to die. We have a choice to begin exploring the connections between the characteristics of ELs who experience the roughness of immersion, as well as schooling that fails to meet their needs, and the similarities to young people who die by suicide, or we can ignore it now and wait until statistics point it out for us in the years to come. The authors broach the urgency of this topic now in order to provide the awareness of possibilities of which most are unaware.


Although in an ideal world all schools are concerned with both the academic and affective aspects of their learners, contemporary literature regarding ELs primarily focuses on the language acquisition and other academics (e.g., Haager, 2007; Meyer, 2000; Short, Fidelman, & Louguit, 2012), content-specific instruction (e.g., Chval & Chavez, 2011/2012; Gaskins, 2015; Li, 2012; Nutta, Bautista, & Butler, 2011; Thornton & Cruz, 2013), as well as assessment (e.g., Hakuta, 20014; Lenski, EhlersZalava, Daniel, & Sun-Irminger, 2006). While resources available for teaching and learning are plentiful and varied for all content areas and grade levels, a very important consideration that has commonly been overlooked because of the current focus on the standardization of learning is the relationship of the learner's socio-emotional needs to academic success (Kayi-Aydar, 2015).

Struggles of ELs

It is important to note that the experiences and needs of ELs vary significantly. For example, some learners come to school as immigrants, while others are born in an English-speaking country (Batalova, Fix, & Murray, 2007); some have been in English-speaking educational settings their whole life, or at least for several years, while others may have recently arrived from their home country. As with any group of adolescents, some ELs are outgoing and make friends quickly, while others are more introverted and struggle to make friends. Given the unique variables that each EL brings to the classroom, research reveals that there are many factors that may affect the learner's emotional and academic success because of the distinctive characteristics this population of students possesses.

First, ELs who are also immigrants are often uprooted against their will (e.g., parents deciding to relocate or fleeing due to war), leaving behind their friends and extended family, the language (and consequently the ability to communicate), familiar schooling expectations, environment, and culture, all of which create an environment where these children or youth feel safe and offer greater potential for academic success. This potentially stressful experience poses significant threat to the wellbeing of the individuals involved (Cristini et al., 2011).

Discrimination in their new environment may occur and may even be ongoing, especially for "refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants" (WHO, 2014, p. 36), contributing to "the continued experience of stressful life events such as loss of freedom, rejection, stigmatization and violence that may evoke suicidal behavior" (p. 36). When the familiarity of home is gone, ELs may find themselves vulnerable, learning a new language, navigating in a school whose expectations are not clear, and classmates who fail to welcome them. Not only is this completely foreign experience scary in and of itself, but relationships with parents, teachers, administrators, peers, and even the community, contribute to the potential breakdown in meeting the emotional needs of immigrant ELs. The struggles of ELs can be daunting, particularly in relation to the amount of time they have lived in the country.


Some ELs quickly experience the effects of alienation as they attempt to survive cultural, familial, academic, and social pressures (Lee, Butler, & Tippins, 2007). Interactions with peers may lead them to associate their heritage culture with being different and the cause of not fitting in at school; consequently, some ELs reject their heritage culture in an effort to fit in with peers (Fillmore, 2000). Yet their peers may continue to view them as outsiders regardless of their effort. F urthermore, a school's lack of preparedness to help ELs adjust to their new environment can alienate them from teachers, administrators, and school itself (Curran, 2003; Fillmore, 2000).

Another important struggle that commonly surfaces for ELs is the pressure from parents to speak the heritage language at home. Caught between two worlds, ELs often find speaking the language of their homeland frustrating because of the alienation they experience at school. As a result, they regard their language as a hindrance to school success in the form of social acceptance (Fillmore, 2000). Having to choose between honoring the requests of their family and fitting in with peers becomes a cyclical pattern that draws ELs away from just being kids, which in itself adds pressures that many other students do not encounter.

Academic Expectations

In terms of academics, there are struggles that are common to many ELs. Those with prior schooling experiences in their home country are often surprised at the different pedagogical approaches used in their new schools. In many countries, education has moved from a traditional, teacher-centered approach to being more student-centered, where students are encouraged to ask questions, take leadership roles, and make decisions about their learning. In contrast, ELs may come from educational settings that use a traditional approach where the teachers are the authoritative imparters of knowledge, and the students are merely empty receptacles. School staff and teachers may be unaware of how to respond to this dichotomy in order to help the learner transition to this new learning environment (Delpit, 2006; Lee et al., 2007; Zhang & Peltarri, 2014).

Another academic difficulty is "cognitive load." Many assignments, activities, and even the content of some classes may not be culturally salient to the student, consequently making schooling extremely taxing on the EL (Meyer, 2000; Ortiz-Marrero & Sumaryono, 2010). One possible consequence of academic difficulty especially affects ELs who excelled in school in their home country. Where formerly the student was considered a high achiever, he or she may now be caste as someone with learning difficulties who needs extra services and may experience negative attitudes from teachers and classmates. In such cases the learner may lose self-esteem (Chang, 2010; Rodriguez, Ringler, O'Neal, & Bunn, 2009). This is also magnified by aspects of alienation and a lack of acceptance by peers, as previously noted.

Language Difficulties

The most obvious cultural barrier is learning in a new language, which often leads to "language shock," the anxiety that is felt when immersed in an unfamiliar tongue (Meyer, 2000). In the context of the classroom, this angst results from the sustained use of a new language without proper support. The worry related to language is further exacerbated by the intolerance of others towards non-native speakers of the language (see Hanish & Guerra, 2000; Olsen, 2000). It is believed that anxiety such as this can hinder academic success and prevent successful language acquisition by triggering the learner's affective filter (see Krashen, 1982).

Curriculum Exclusion

With the craze of standardization in the curriculum, ELs are frequently an afterthought, at best, and completely excluded at worst (Cummins, 2000, 2001; Cummins et al., 2005). ELs are often viewed as a "problem" to be eradicated, regardless of the actual ability and skill set of the student. Rather than valuing ELs' first language and cultural heritage--which could enrich the learning environment for everyone--schools often expect them to abandon their first language and culture and...

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