5 Ways K–12 Schools Can Support Youth Suicide Prevention

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among people ages 10–24 in the U.S. Learn what your school can do to focus on mental health and suicide prevention.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the third leading cause of death for adolescents and young adults between the ages of 10 and 24 in the United States, leading to approximately 4,600 deaths a year.

Risk Factors

The CDC has listed several factors that place youth at a higher risk than other age groups to attempt suicide, which include: a history of previous suicide attempts, a family history of suicide attempts, a history of depression or other mental health disorders, a history of or current alcohol or drug abuse, a traumatic life event (e.g. loss of a close family member, divorce, physical or sexual abuse, bullying by peers), access to materials that aid in suicide , spending time with peers who engage in suicidal behaviors, and incarceration.

What Schools Can Do

Suicide and depression are difficult to address in part because they are stigmatized, and, as a society, we are nervous to discuss such sensitive topics. Providing children and teens with a safe environment in which they know they can express their emotions can encourage youth-in-need to reach out for help.

Here is what your school can do to help:

1. Train staff to understand depression.

Mental health disorders, specifically depression, have been closely linked to suicide. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 80 percent of individuals who commit suicide experience symptoms commonly associated with depression.

Schools should work with teachers, staff, and parents to teach them how to identify the signs of depression in students. SAVE, Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, explains that symptoms of depression for children include fluctuations in energy, sleeping and eating problems, constant worry or panic attacks, extreme self-consciousness, and physical symptoms like headaches and stomachaches that aren’t explained by a physical condition. Sometimes, childhood depression may also manifest as a phobia of school or social interactions.

For teens, depression may look slightly different and symptoms include sluggishness, inability to concentrate, noticeable weight loss or weight gain, persistent negativity, and low self-esteem. It may sometimes present as impulsivity and risk-taking.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 10.7 percent of Americans age 12–17 had a major depressive disorder in 2013. Teachers, staff, and parents should be aware of the signs of depression and know potential resources to offer students and their families. These can include family therapy, behavioral therapy, or pharmacotherapy.

Although having a student or child suffering from a major depressive disorder can be heartbreaking, with the right therapy, SAVE estimates that 80–90 percent of people that seek treatment for their depression find these interventions to be successful. Rather than shying away from confronting this difficult topic, it’s better to address the situation head on and provide support for these struggling children and adolescents before their feelings escalate further.

2. Help students feel more connected.

Researchers have found that students who believe that their parents and teachers care about them personally as well as about their success within the school and community are less likely to commit suicide.

There are several interventions parents and teachers can rely on to help students feel an increased sense of belonging within their schools and communities:

  • Ask a student about her feelings: If your student seems to be withdrawing from school, set a time to talk about what may be going on. Even if the student doesn’t feel comfortable opening up, knowing that someone noticed and took the time to ask caring questions can help the student feel comfortable reaching out when she is ready to open up.

  • Offer academic support: When a student is going through emotional turmoil, it can be difficult to focus on schoolwork. Teachers can work with students to come up with more flexible plans that allow them to get their work done, such as extending deadlines or coming up with alternative assignments.

  • Create a safe space: If a student is having a difficult time opening up but seems to be struggling, teachers or staff can offer her the opportunity to have a quiet place to think during lunchtime or after school if she needs it.

3. Establish protocols for students who are at risk.

Schools should have clearly established protocols for helping students who are at risk to attempt suicide or who have attempted suicide, as well as protocols for the steps that should be taken if a student commits suicide. These protocols should be known by teachers, staff, parents, and students.

If necessary, schools can partner with local organizations that help train teachers and staff. Helpful organizations include The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, The Society of Prevention of Teen Suicide, and The Suicide Prevention Resource Center.

4. Establish a screening program.

Schools should implement a method of assessing students who they believe may be at risk of committing suicide. This will allow teachers and staff to understand a student’s individual situation and decide on the best way to intervene.

Pre-existing assessment options that schools can consider include the Suicidal Ideation Questionnaire (SIQ), Suicidal Behaviors Questionnaire — Revised (SBQ-R), and the Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale (C-SSRS). These assessments usually take about 15–20 minutes to complete and consist of several questions that gauge the severity of a student’s suicidal ideation. Teachers and staff should receive training both in how to administer these tests as well as how to interpret results and implement interventions.

In addition, prior to administering these surveys, teachers and staff should be clear with the student about whom this information will be shared with. Laws about mandated reporting, or a legal obligation to notify authorities when a person reports thoughts of hurting herself or others, vary from state to state, so teachers and staff should know what they must legally do and share that with the student before completing the assessment.

5. Educate students, parents, and teachers.

Schools should hold yearly trainings at multiple levels to educate students, parents, and staff about suicide. These trainings should be informative as well as interactive and encourage participants to increase their awareness about suicide among students. Programs should promote open and safe dialogue within the classroom regarding suicide and mental health disorders such as depression. One potential program is LEADS for Youth. The LEADS for Youth curriculum includes presentations and questions for class discussions that high school teachers can use to help students understand what depression looks like and where they can turn to for help.

Final Thoughts

Some people believe that talking about suicide to an at-risk student may increase the likelihood that the person will take action. On the contrary, establishing open communication and an environment where students feel they can freely share what is on their minds is essential to preventing suicide. When in doubt, let a student know that you are there for her. Once she lets you know how she is feeling, the above-mentioned resources will help you provide the assistance she needs, or you can reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or access help from a textline.

Want to learn more about wellness and education? Find more guidance about mental health from Noodle Experts like Christine VanDonge.

Sources:

Featured Topic: World Health Organization's (WHO) Report on Preventing Suicide. (2015, August 28). Retrieved October 9, 2015, from CDC

Major Depression Among Adolescents. Retrieved from NIMH

Suicide: Risk and Protective Factors. Retrieved October 9, 2015, from CDC

Suicide Prevention: Youth Suicide. Retrieved from the CDC

Symptoms of Major Depression. Retrieved from SAVE

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