The Warning Signs
When a youth is suicide there will be observable behaviors to indicate there’s an issue. These warning signs include:
- Changes in appearance, behavior, feelings, or thoughts.
- Suicide notes or plans, whether online or offline.
- A history of suicidal behavior.
- A preoccupation with death.
- Direct suicide threats, such as an outright statement of I’m going to kill myself.
- Indirect suicide threats, such as a statement like wishing to fall asleep and never wake up.
- Giving prized possessions away, penning a will, or making funeral arrangements.
How to Handle the Signs
When a youth is feeling suicidal they are not likely to seek help directly. However, when the warning signs are recognized, immediate action should be taken. Consider the following steps:
- Stay calm.
- Speak to the youth directly, and ask if they are having suicidal thoughts.
- Your sole focus should be on their wellbeing, don’t make accusations.
- Listen to what they have to say.
- Let them know that you are there to help, and that they won’t always feel like this.
- Do not offer judgement.
- Do not leave them alone, constant supervision should be provided.
- Any means of self-harm should be removed.
- Get Help! No one should promise to keep suicidal thoughts quiet. Friends should alert teachers and parents, and teachers should alert parents and the school psychologist. Parents discovering their child is suicidal should seek mental health help immediately.
The School’s Role
Children spend most of their day in school, where they are under supervision. Effective suicide prevention is integrated with mental health services and is embedded in a positive climate, creating a caring and trusting environment between teacher and students. It’s vital that teachers understand the warning signs and risk factors of suicidal behavior and know what steps to take when they see them. School psychologists are trained to handle these situations, and can conduct risk assessments, and warn parents, while offering referrals for mental health support.
If an issue has been raised, even if the child psychologist has determined they are at low risk of suicide, the school will inform the parents and document the process that was followed. Parents, or guardians, have critical information for the risk assessment. They know the dynamics of the family, whether the child has a history of mental health issues, have displayed previous suicidal behavior, or experienced a traumatic event recently. When a school notifies parents, or guardians, of a suicide risk, they must:
- Take the threats seriously.
- Take advantage of the support offered by the school.
- Maintain an open line of communication with the school.
Resiliency factors can reduce the potential for risk factors to result in suicidal behaviors or ideation. Once a youth has been determined at risk, friends, schools, and families should build these factors:
- Easy access to mental health resources.
- Family cohesion and support, including open communication.
- Satisfaction with life.
- Close social networks and peer support.
- Adaptive coping skills, especially conflict resolution.
- The promotion of healthy living.