Building Consensus for School-Based Suicide Prevention in the Bay Area

Santa Clara County, a populous area in Silicon Valley serving 272,000 K-12 students, knew something more needed to be done to impact school-based suicide prevention when a cluster of deaths by suicide devastated Palo Alto high schools in 2010.

Following a needs assessment to address gaps in student mental health, Santa Clara County Behavioral Health Services (BHSD) brought together the Santa Clara County Office of Education, local non-profit HEARD Alliance, Bay Area schools, and Kognito to address suicide prevention for Bay Area youth.

Read on for more details on the Santa Clara County community partnership and what has resulted.

Creating a Plan to Reach Students In Crisis

After conducting a needs assessment, the County found that school staff knowledge in protocols for handling difficult situations decreased as risk increased. For example, only 23% of the staff surveyed reported that they were aware of protocol in responding to suicide deaths.

After finding that mental health promotion and better training for school staff was a top priority, BHSD began engaging partners. What made this partnership unique was the systematic, step-by-step approach that BHSD took to meet mutual goals.

“It’s important to work in a systematic way to improve policies, education, referrals, and connecting to services. This partnership effort is a comprehensive suicide prevention approach, ultimately betering and saving the lives of students.”

Dr. Shashank Joshi, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Stanford University and member of the HEARD Alliance

These goals included increasing the number of gatekeepers in schools and supporting and engaging school districts in suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention. By achieving these goals, the partnership hoped to:

  • increase early identification and support for people thinking about suicide,
  • increase use of mental health services, and
  • strengthen community suicide prevention and response systems.

Once implementation began, the HEARD Alliance offered technical assistance and consulting services to schools, who received its K-12 Toolkit that compiled best practices, training and education, protocols, tools, and resources.

Training Educators & Staff to Be Effective Gatekeepers

The partnership began with seven Santa Clara County school districts. One piece of the partnership effort involved selecting a gatekeeper training to implement. In selecting specific gatekeeper training programs, BHSD considered a range of options. Kognito’s At-Risk suite of professional development simulations was selected for several reasons:

  • the programs are evidence-based, interactive and experiential,
  • they focus on building skills in addition to knowledge, and
  • they are relatively easy to scale across a large diverse county—an important factor given the limited availability of resources such as staff.

At-Risk uses a virtual coach and role-play simulations to educate educators and staff about mental health and suicide prevention. Using virtual student conversations with realistic scenarios, learners gain confidence in recognizing students in distress and taking the necessary steps to connect them with life-saving support.


Kognito’s role-play simulations are shown to increase self-confidence in leading conversations about mental health concerns, including suicide. They have also been proven to increase the number of students identified, approached and referred to support.

Kognito’s At-Risk simulations became a tangible, feasible starting point for broader systemic change in the Bay area, and on the day of rollout, over 500 teachers and administrators completed the training.


Teachers and staff completed a survey before and after the online training to measure knowledge, awareness, and confidence around mental health gatekeeping. Survey results found statistically significant increases in the average reported ratings in every one of these measures, and teachers reported using the skills they learned the very next day. At one high school, four referrals were made and two students were hospitalized.

“We would not have discovered the level of distress had we not been equipped to have those conversations,” a teacher said.

Elementary schools heard how effective the training was, and reached out to request access for their staff. Since Kognito’s At-Risk was first introduced to the participating seven Santa Clara County districts, an additional 12 elementary schools have completed the training.

Plans for the future are to expand and extend the program. The existing district partners will be receiving additional Kognito trainings, and BHSD plans to further expand the partnership to bring At-Risk to more schools throughout the county.

“Bringing in Kognito simulations to train teachers in our district and working with the HEARD Alliance allowed us to address a difficult subject, suicide, and bring it to the forefront. Kognito’s simulations are easy to use, and our teachers appreciated the ability to work on their own, and at their own pace, on developing their skills to better address this growing epidemic.”

-Jessie Swift, Coordinator of Student Services for Morgan Hill Unified School District

More Community Partnership Information

By sharing learnings and knowledge, we can all support each other as we work to ensure children and youth are getting life-saving help and support when they need it. Dive deeper into the steps the Silicon Valley partnership took to help address suicide prevention in schools by watching our on-demand webinar here.

In this webinar, you’ll hear from key stakeholders from Santa Clara County Behavioral Health Services, Santa Clara Unified School District, HEARD Alliance, and us at Kognito as they share their methods and results from the partnership. Hearing first-hand from the leaders who helped initiate, plan, implement, and assess this effective suicide prevention program can provide powerful insights to inspire your own actions.

Explore more articles from the Kognito blog: 

Scroll to Top