“Jeff is an amazing speaker and his message is powerful. I heard him for the first time in Atchison,KS after our community suffered from some very tragic losses. Jeff was amazing and helped with the healing process. My high school son heard Jeff speak and his comment to me was “that was powerful mom.” I brought Jeff to my district this past fall. Again, his message was powerful and he touched the lives of many. Jeff you are amazing!!! Keep fighting the fight!” – Julie Crum, Principal
Addressing Teen Suicide & Prevention in SchoolsAddressing teen suicide in schools is becoming more of a concern everyday. Our school administrators are understanding that they need to bring this more attention, but the concern is how to do it in a safe and non-triggering manner that is educational, informative, and provides help for those in need. Without the proper community resources understand the schools are lacking the correct resources to address students in need of third party professional care. Nonetheless, at the onset, it’s about relationships and getting our youth to talk. It’s important that our students learn about mental health from the same trusted adults they learn everyday from. Full applause to every administrator, teacher, coach, student, and parent that supports this and is willing to address the topic of teen mental health. Bravo! We have a lot of work to do, but let’s not shy away from the topic of Teen Mental Health.
When the Conversation HappensLet’s get acquainted with a few things regarding the conversation about teen mental health, teen suicide, or mental wellness. First, the conversation don’t need to be in crisis moments. The conversations don’t need to be depressing either. It’s really important that we all get educated and know what to do when the conversation happens in real time. Even before the conversation starts, we need to notice the red flags that will lead us to have the conversation. Listen, nothing to be worried about. Nothing to want to shy away from. We are adults and we have experience and wisdom. Talk to your teens, students, youth in the same manner you talk about your subject or a current event. You are the trusted and significant adult. They’re going to listen to you. With everything, approach this conversation with compassion, empathy, and be really present with your heart to theirs. This moment is a moment that can shape their life forever and you are that light the individual needs. Give yourself permission to know you can and will say the right thing. Know that you listening and being present is what matters most in this moment.
You Might Not Be QualifiedStop right there. You might not be trained in mental health as a counselor or therapist, but you are trusted as a teacher or you’ve been given the honor of being a mom or dad, coach, aunt, uncle, youth pastor, or some other significant adult. You are qualified in these moments of crisis where a young person trusts in you. What you do in these moments matter most. Your number one job is to cherish this relationship right here and right now. Listen. Care. Be the source that bridges this individual with the person they need to be with to get the help they need. Think parents. Think school counselor. Think professional mental health care. Put this in order. First, get in touch with your school counselor or school administration. You’ve done your job. They will contact parents and let’s hope the parents do the right thing. In the meantime, you’ve done more than what a qualified person can do. A qualified person wasn’t there when the individual needed that trusting and significant adult. Believe in you. However, do remember you are not the therapist and your job isn’t to fix the individual. You being present, compassionate, and giving your attention to the situation is saving the person’s life and giving them hope, permission, and the right advise of what is next.
Warning Signs of Teen SuicideThe warning signs associated with teen suicide should be learned by every adult and student. This should be common place in today’s schools. Just knowing the warning signs alone can make the conversation happen before the individual reaches out. You will know when to intervene. Active listening skills should be a staff development workshop as well as a class for students. This way, anyone hearing or seeing warning signs can intervene when they witness those signs that are a “Cry for help.” The more education we receive on teen suicide behaviors and how to respond the greater chances we have of saving lives and getting people the help they need.
Outside ResourcesAll teachers and school personnel should be given the outside resources that are available within your community. Make it available to all teachers in a booklet and also add it to your school website resources page. Having this information on hand and readily accessible shows genuine concern for your students and also offers a sense of hope in facing life’s challenges.
School Policy on Teen SuicideEvery school should have their policy on teen suicide available along with the resources. This policy should cover the basics of what to look for such as the warning signs, symptoms, myths and facts, clues, and more. This should be written with the help of school counselors, mental health professionals, and should be talked about with all staff present so they’re comfortable in the policies and procedures if and when they find themselves in a conversation or a crisis. Know the policies and procedures and have them written down and provided to all staff. Knowing what to do and how to respond appropriately to suicidal behavior and a crisis or a threat in school or out of school is important to saving a life before an individual reacts emotionally. This knowledge will not only help students and staff members, but it will also possibly avoid lawsuits.
Teen Suicide CluesAll teachers and staff members should be aware of clues that will show the warning signs. Take all signs seriously. If you see something you should say something. If you know something you should do something. You generally have four different types clues that something is wrong:
- Direct Verbal Clues
- Indirect Verbal Clues
- Behavioral Clues
- Situational Clues
- Talking about suicide, hurting themselves, death, or dying
- Seeking access to firearms or pills
- Withdrawing from friends, family, and society
- Having severe mood swings
- Feeling hopeless or trapped
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs
- Sleeping all the time or having issues with sleep
- Uncontrolled rage or agitation
- Self-destructive and risky behavior
- Giving away personal belongings
- Telling people goodbye for seemingly no reason
Remember people at any age can experience suicidal thoughts. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers.
Other Factors to Consider
- Gender: Men commit suicide successfully 4.5 times more often than women, but women attempt suicide 2-4 times more than men.
- Ethnicity: African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and Asian-Americans have lower rates than Euro-Americans.
- However, Native Americans have rates 1.6-4.2 times the national average.
- Sexual orientation: Homosexual teens are three times more likely to attempts suicide than heterosexual teens.
- Previous suicide attempts: Of all completed suicides, 10-40% have previously attempted suicide.
Ways to InterveneKnowing the policies and procedures will help immensely. Follow the guidelines accordingly and be confident to step into action. Be prepared to drop everything to take time to deal with the situation. Take every complaint and feeling the individual expresses seriously. Do not try to minimize the problem by telling the person everything they have to live for. This will only increase feelings of guilt and hopelessness. Be calm, supportive, and nonjudgmental. Listen actively and encourage self-disclosure. It is okay to acknowledge the reality of suicide as a choice, but do not “normalize” suicide as a choice. Assure the individual they’re doing the right thing by confiding in you. Do not express discomfort with the situation. Your willingness to discuss it will show the person you care and you want to help. Stay with the person. Never leave him/her alone until further action has been taken. You have done everything you can by just being in the moment, listening and being non-judgemental.
Suicidal Ideation on PhoneIf you are talking to someone via phone, do not hang up; get someone else to call for help on another line. Be on speaker and be texting someone immediately. Don’t overreact until you know the severity, but take all signs seriously. Get someone to the person in distress immediately. Recognize that talking about suicide will not plant the idea! In reality, talking about suicide reduces their anxiety.
Show You Care and Want To HelpListen and ask questions. Show that you are paying attention and that you care. Ask direct, straightforward questions. (“Are you thinking of suicide?”) Be aware that students will usually respond “no.” This is not your place to challenge them or wonder if they’re being truthful. Remember, you are the person that got them talking and the next step will be with the mental health professionals or third party psychiatric care and evaluation. Without you intervening here they may not get the help they need.
- What has happened to make life so difficult?
- What has been keeping you alive so far?
- Are you thinking of suicide?
- Do you have a suicide plan?
- Do you use alcohol or drugs?
- When you think about yourself and the future, what do you visualize?
- Is the means available to you? Remove the means if possible.
- What do you think the odds are that you will kill yourself?
The SLAP MethodDetermining the severity of the risk isn’t your call to make. The situation needs to be addressed with the parents, the school counselors, or a third party mental health professional from your conversation. That includes you calling 911, school administration, school counselor, parents, family members, etc. It’s important that you have this information though because it needs to be documented and shared when you make the call. S = How (S) pecific are the details of the plan? L = What is the (L) evel of lethality of the plan? (Gun vs. aspirin) A = What is the (A) vailability of the proposed method? P = What is the (P) roximity to helping resources? Be positive and supportive in your approach. Help the individual student see that what they’re feeling in this moment is temporary and that the crisis will pass. Just get the individual to breathe. Let the individual know they’re okay and they will be okay. Validate them for sharing and coming forward. Share about that situations we deal with are temporary, but suicide is forever. It’s okay to say this in the conversation. Just remember, you are not a trained therapist and you can’t fix their heart. Just care and be there. In the here and the now, your job is to understand, be compassionate, empathetic, and lead the individual to the right person in the moment of crisis. I can’t repeat that enough.
Support Groups and People to HelpOften an individual contemplating suicide is unaware of the different support groups such as (e.g., counselors, family, friends) that are available. Or, they feel they can’t talk to them or they don’t know how to talk to them. Mention the individual’s family as a source of strength, but if they reject the idea, back away quickly. For teens, the source of pain is usually either the family or the peer group. When you know which it is, you are in a better position to help or refer for help. Use constructive questions to help separate and define the person’s problems and remove some of their confusion. To help the person understand their situation, use active listening and respond empathically. (“It sounds like you feel…”). Allow them to talk and you listen.
Being Prepared in Moments of CrisisIf it’s a crisis situation and you need to make crisis management decisions in the moment. Be decisive. Rapid decision making on the part of the intervener is extremely important. If you need someone to help find out who the individual’s trusted and significant adult is and call for help. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Example: “So, I know you’re really close with your math teacher, Ms. __________. Would you like me to call and see if she is available?”
Moving Forward in the Moment of CrisisReport the incident to the appropriate school personnel. Again, this is school counselor(s) or school administration. Here again, know the the proper protocol. Know policy and procedure so you move forward according to your school districts guidelines.
Never Leave a Suicidal Person AloneBefore leaving the individual make sure they verbally promise they will be safe and won’t make a forever decision – Commit Suicide. If you can, get the student to sign something that you had written up. Make sure this is the last resort before leaving a student alone in this situation. Teen Suicide and acting on impulse is like what butter is to bread. Know that their behavior and the crisis situation they’re feeling time is of the utmost importance. Do not leave the person alone . . . UNLESS, and this is a big UNLESS, you absolutely have no other choice and you’ve agreed with the person in writing they’ll be okay for the night. If you can’t get hold of school personnel such as counselor or school administration, call the students parents or guardians. Please make a decisive decision for what is in the best interest of the student and their well-being. Save a life first. Depending on the time of day and the whereabouts of this moment, you have to act and do accordingly. Do not keep the person’s threat a secret, but do respect their privacy. Be confident and think through the situation in what is the best, safest, outcome for the individual.
Actions to AvoidResponding in Crisis Situations isn’t easy, but know that in the moment you need to breathe and relax. It’s going to be okay, but here are some things to avoid. Make no promises. This is a situation where it is never appropriate to promise confidentiality. Do not ignore or lessen the suicidal threat. Avoid sounding shocked at the suicidal thoughts. Do not stress the shock or pain that the suicide may cause their family before you are certain that is not exactly what the student hopes to accomplish. Don’t moralize. Do not argue with a student who may be suicidal. You may not only lose the debate, but also the person. Don’t criticize, ridicule, or infer that the person is crazy. Don’t be concerned by long periods of silence. Allow the student time to think. Do not ignore your own intuitions about a student’s behavior or changes. Do not try to handle the situation alone. Do not attempt in-depth counseling. Be present. Be patient. Listen.
Teen Suicide: Additional InformationIf a suicide does occur, it is essential that the students be provided with accurate facts about the suicide as soon as possible. This information should be given to all students simultaneously. It is necessary to provide sufficient time for discussion and also support for the students. Be careful here, because you need to know what the family/parents are saying. This is also a moment where the school administration may not have had time to brief the school staff. If this is the case, the teachers are already in class and will have to address the situation with their classes. Another reason why it’s important to address teen suicide: behaviors and responding in moments of crisis. Staff members want to know what to say and how to support their students. Give them permission that they’re capable of having this conversation and that it’s okay to speak from their heart. Be gentle, listen, it’s okay to show your emotions. This is real and the kids want real. They want their teachers to be real and not to sugarcoat situation or events. The students will look to you for guidance and support. It’s okay to just say, “I don’t know right now. I’m shocked. I have to process this and breathe. Right now, that’s all we can all do.” It’s okay to say, “I’m sorry. This really sucks!” Allow them to talk and express their feelings. Getting them to talk openly and together is the best and safest thing as they’re all together. Keep the students in school. School is the safest place for everyone to be. Together.
Teen Suicide Statistics
- Of the people that commit the act of suicide, 90% have showed signs that indicated they needed help. Most have told someone within the previous couple weeks that they were thinking about hurting themselves.
- In the past 30 years, teen suicide has increased 300%.
- Among children between the ages of 10-14, suicide has gone up 112%.
- For every completed suicide, there are between 300 attempts.
- Suicidal adolescents are a diverse group. Be aware of the ripple effect.
- Research shows an increase in adolescent suicide following media coverage of a high profile suicide.