Culture of Caring

Be An Interrupter

When a person contemplates their impending suicide, having planned and prepared for it and sought out the best location, arrives there ready to complete the act, the end seems inevitable. But not necessarily. I don’t know what the statistics are, but it is surprising how many suicide attempts have been interrupted unexpectedly.

There is a well-known story about how Kevin Hines wanted to be saved by an interrupter before he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. Regretting his action the moment he leaped off the railing, he realized he did not want to die. Miraculously, Hines survived. He tells the story of his journey to the bridge. In tears and clearly in distress, no one noticed him. He believes that if just one person had stopped and spoken to him, he would not have jumped.

We can never know what another person is thinking or feeling, especially a stranger. Can you picture yourself walking down a street and seeing someone who looks upset or distraught walk past you? You might react by thinking, “That person looks so sad.” and continue on your way.

Can You Interrupt a Suicide Attempt?

But what if you didn’t just pass them by? What if you interrupted them and asked, "Are you okay?" A simple gesture showing you care about another human being can be enough to change the trajectory of that person’s thinking. Because the act of suicide is often impulsive, even when it stems from a premeditated plan, diverting that person’s thinking at that point in time can be all it takes to save a life.

Stories like that are serendipitous and not typically the way suicide is prevented. However, the more we know about suicide prevention, the more likely it is that we will be able to help someone who is struggling. Start by learning the warning signs.

The Power of Positive

Once you are familiar with warning signs of suicidal ideation, consider what you can do to prevent suicide. If you are an educator - a teacher, counselor, social worker, school administrator, or involved parent- you can put plans in place at your school or district. A basic outline includes four main components:

• Everyone who works with students needs to be trained in suicide prevention. So do the students.

• Every school needs to have a crisis plan, and every staff member must know how to use it.

• Increase social connections for students. Connectedness is a strong protective factor.

• Teach coping skills and resilience. If students know how to react when they are struggling, they may be more likely to resolve problems before they escalate or ask for help.

Of course, every school is unique and will have different needs and opportunities. If you believe creating a positive school environment is essential, that should be a priority. Here's how one school taught students the psychology of happiness. 

Positive psychology can help students build coping skills, resilience, and the knowledge they need to understand their feelings. Today, we know much more about youth mental health than we did in the past. It is critical that schools look for opportunities to make teaching mental health and social-emotional skills part of what every classroom teacher and specialist integrates into their instruction every day.

What About AI Surveillance Tools?

Schools have a myriad of ways to measure student learning and implement interventions for students who need additional support. With the surge of AI applications available to schools, what about using it as a tool to identify suicidal ideation? While there are certain advantages to using technology, there can also be unintended consequences.

Sometimes, a simple paper screening tool may be all that is needed. Often used as part of suicide prevention training presentations for students, screeners identify students who may be at risk. When they self-identify or mention a friend who might be struggling, a school counselor should meet with students individually, notify parents, and determine if further action is needed.

Better yet, if all schools considered checking brain health as part of routine annual screening tests, like vision and hearing, they could identify signs of trouble before they become significant problems.  

A Culture of Caring: A Suicide Prevention Guide for Schools (K-12) was created as a resource for educators who want to know how to get started and what steps to take to create a suicide prevention plan that will work for their schools and districts. It is written from my perspective as a school principal and survivor of suicide loss, not an expert in psychology or counseling. I hope that any teacher, school counselor, psychologist, principal, or district administrator can pick up this book, flip to a chapter, and easily find helpful answers to the questions they are likely to have about what schools can do to prevent suicide.

Theodora Schiro