By Christopher J. Leonard, MSW, LCSW, M.ED.
Parents and educators have grown increasingly anxious about child suicide and they have good reason for concern. . Among school age youth, suicide is the second leading cause of death. In a survey of United States students in grades 9 through 12, 16% reported that they seriously considered suicide, and 8% stated that they tried to take their own lives in the past 12 months. These alarming numbers indicate that warning signs must always be taken very seriously.
There was a time when teachers were only responsible for educating children. Today, they must also be aware of each student’s mental well being and be able to recognize the signs that a student may be in danger.
Early Identification and Intervention
The first step to effective suicide prevention in schools is ensuring a safe and accepting environment that fosters trusting relationships with adults. From this starting point, successful suicide prevention educational programs, school-based suicide risk assessment, and effective in-school intervention plans may be implemented.
There are some common risk factors and warning signs that are associated with increased suicide risk that educators can watch for. These include:
- Severe depression, anxiety, or a psychotic episode
- Loss, e.g., death of loved one, breakup of a relationship
- Loss of social support, e.g., due to relocation
- A significant illness or medication that triggers a change in mood
- Exposure to the suicidal behavior of others, including peers or a celebrity
Use this acronym to help remember seven of the most common observable behaviors that point to potential suicide risk:
P osessions given away
A nxiety / agitation
D rug and/or alcohol use
I solates self, withdraws from activites
G oodbyes to friends, family
M ethod (researches ways to kill self)
S leep disturbance
If a teacher observes any one of these indicators, he or she should immediately inform a parent, an administrator, and a child study team professional or school counselor. If you can only speak with one person immediately, tell your direct supervisor who can ensure that the parent and child study or counseling professionals are informed.
One excellent tool is the Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale C-SSRS. This is a great scale for teachers to learn because anyone can be trained to administer it. You do not have to be a mental health professional.
Another great feature of the C-SSRS is that it indicates steps to be taken based on the answers the student gives.
Since the majority of an adolescent’s time is spent in school, it falls upon teachers, coaches, counselors, and administrators to keep an eye out for suspicious or concerning behavior and alert the appropriate personnel as needed. Schools can help to prevent suicide by
- Training all staff to recognize the warning signs and to understand reporting protocols
- Training staff to administer the C-SSRS or similar, evidence-based assessment
- Ensure that students and staff have daily access to a trained mental health practitioner who can assess students, provide mental health counseling and make seamless referrals when a student needs a higher level of care
Have additional questions about student suicide or mental health issues? Feel free to reach out to us at any time.
Christopher J. Leonard, MSW, LCSW, M.ED.
Chris Leonard is Director of Operations for Sage Thrive and the Sage Day Schools. He is an experienced teacher, school administrator, social worker and psychotherapist with over 30 years of experience working with children, adolescents, and families. Mr. Leonard is married with two daughters and enjoys distance running, mountain and road biking, hiking, and the outdoors.