Every time a child dies by suicide, parents and teachers cry, “If only we had known!” Looking back, the signs were there. They just didn’t recognize them. Simply by reading this, you are educating yourself about suicide. By learning the basic facts, you will have a better chance of noticing the red flags that signal warnings if you know how to look for them.
Teachers and staff who work in schools spend so much time with children, they serve as the frontline in suicide prevention. If they are trained in suicide prevention, they can be proactive and take steps to prevent tragedies from happening in their school communities. If they have the knowledge to recognize warning signs and risk factors, the courage to speak up, and the resources to find help when they see a child struggling with depression and anxiety or other mental health conditions, educators can be lifesavers.
Suicide Warning Signs[i]
Something to look out for if you are concerned that a person may be suicidal is a change in behavior or the presence of entirely new behaviors. Especially if the new or changed behavior is related to a painful event, loss, or change. Most people who take their lives exhibit one or more warning signs, either through what they say or what they do.
It is a WARNING SIGN if a person talks about:
- Killing themselves
- Feeling hopeless
- Having no reason to live
- Being a burden to others
- Feeling trapped
- Unbearable pain
Changes in Behavior can be WARNING SIGNS, especially if it’s related to a painful event, loss or change:
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs
- Looking for a way to end their lives, such as searching online for methods
- Withdrawing from activities
- Isolating from family and friends
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Visiting or calling people to say goodbye
- Giving away prized possessions
Mood changes can be WARNING SIGNS too.
- Loss of interest
- Relief/Sudden Improvement
Suicide risk factors
Risk factors are characteristics or conditions that increase the chance that a person may try to take their life.
Risk factor: Health
- Mental health conditions
- Substance use problems
- Bipolar disorder
- Personality traits of aggression, mood changes and poor relationships
- Conduct disorder
- Anxiety disorders
- Serious physical health conditions including pain
- Traumatic brain injury
Risk factor: Environmental
- Access to lethal means including firearms and drugs
- Prolonged stress, such as harassment, bullying, relationship problems or unemployment
- Stressful life events, like rejection, divorce, financial crisis, other life transitions or loss
- Exposure to another person’s suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of suicide
Risk factor: Historical
- Previous suicide attempts
- Family history of suicide
- Childhood abuse, neglect or trauma
- Connectedness: Sense of being cared for, supported, and belonging[ii]
- Problem solving and coping skills
- Awareness and prevention training for school staff
Schools set the tone and create environments that become protective factors for students. In settings where students feel a sense of belonging, they learn to develop positive and supportive social relationships. Those community connections can help buffer the effects of risk factors in student’s lives.
The most effective prevention starts in kindergarten. Yes, really. That is where children start to learn problem solving skills. Schools should teach coping skills at every grade level because as children mature, the issues that cause stress and insecurity will change.
Teachers and staff who are trained in suicide prevention are a protective factor. Because of their awareness and understanding of suicide, they encourage help-seeking behavior. They teach students that mental illness is a disease, not a character flaw, and must be treated as any other medical health issue.
By initiating a comprehensive suicide prevention plan in your school or district, you are demonstrating the importance of caring for the whole child. You are focusing not only on academic growth but the social and emotional needs that are crucial to student success.
[ii] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC);Youth Connectedness Is an Important Protective Factor for Health and Well-being
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.