November 17, 2021 - Podcast

Episode 204—How to improve organizational diversity, and preventing youth suicide

Today, many organizations are focused on becoming more diverse. But simply being diverse is not enough for an organization to realize the benefits of diversity, according to research by Indiana University Bloomington sociologist Brad Fulton. While a diverse team can bring a broad range of experiences, resources, and networks to an organization, diversity alone does not guarantee that such benefits will be realized, Fulton says. Instead, an organization’s ability to realize the benefits of diversity is related to whether its members interact in ways that engage their social differences. Some organizations, Fulton says, actually discourage members from focusing on their social differences, while others actively encourage members to openly discuss and explore those differences. Engaging across differences, which can be fostered through cultural activities such as sharing meals, strengthens shared group identity, Fulton says. By talking openly about social differences, organization members can deepen their understanding of each other, learn about issues from different perspectives, and be exposed to alternative approaches to addressing those issues. Participating in bridging cultural activities and talking about social differences can help members feel known and valued as well as improve relationships among members, Fulton says. He also found that organizations whose members interact in these ways tend to experience better outcomes. In particular, they were more effective at forming alliances, developing strategies, organizing constituents, and mobilizing people.

In other news, the risk of suicide is an increasing reality for U.S. high school students; in fact, suicide is currently the second leading cause of death among U.S. adolescents ages 15 to 19. This means suicidal students are showing up in schools, and schools need evidence-based guidance to address the risk and help their students, says IU Bloomington sociologist Anna Mueller. Mueller is currently working with a research team to study youth suicide and school environments. She says current science-based understanding about how to prevent suicide in schools is far too limited and far too hard for schools to maintain effectively over time. Her goal is to provide the schools with sustainable, actionable strategies for suicide prevention. While her research is ongoing, Mueller has identified some early findings to help guide schools and their communities. First, she says, schools, teachers, staff and parents need to acknowledge that things are really different for today’s high school students, who are grappling with 21st century realities that include school violence and shootings, climate change and a pandemic, all of which substantially increase young people’s uncertainty about the future. Second, she says, a broader focus is needed within high schools, one that is not strictly academic and is more accepting of diverse trajectories and diverse forms of success. Also, Mueller says, as a country, we need to recognize all the non-academic work that schools are doing with respect to students and provide support to schools with resources and training in mental health care. Finally, when it comes to suicide prevention in schools, Mueller says we also need to be pragmatic and think smaller. Because suicide is so complex, she says, it may be that many small changes will do a better job of addressing the problem than one big intervention. Overall, her research so far has shown her that many schools have already developed creative strategies to try to improve suicide prevention, which makes her hopeful that it is possible to build better mental health safety nets for students.