The rate of teen suicide has steadily increased since 2005. Among youth ages 15-24 years old, suicide is the second leading cause of death. A ripple effect of needs is created when a teenage suicide death occurs. Responding appropriately is critical to ensuring that everyone affected—family, friends and the school community—receives the right type and amount of support.
Grief can have a profound impact on students and may create new mental health issues or worsen existing conditions. Additional factors must also be addressed, including identifying students who may be at risk for taking a similar path (also known as suicidal ideation or suicide contagion).
Professor Ron Avi Astor, who recently spoke with USC’s online MSW program, believes that suicidal ideation is often thought of as just an individual issue treated only in counseling, but schools can help a great deal by addressing possible peer and social dynamics that may contribute to stronger suicidal ideation.
However, many educators feel ill-prepared to help their grieving students, and many school districts aren’t offering the necessary training. The National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement (NCSCB) offers a number of guides for schools, administrators and staff that explain how to respond to crises such as a death in a school. These guides incorporate psychological first aid models, which outline steps to help grieving students through a school crisis, including:
- Listen: Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues from students that show stress and make yourself available to talk.
- Protect: Answer questions honestly and communicate what is being done to keep students safe.
- Connect: Keep communication open with other adults, find resources that can offer support and help restore student activities that encourage interaction with friends.
- Model: Be aware of your own reactions to crises and demonstrate how to cope in a healthy way.
- Teach: Help students identify positive coping mechanisms and celebrate small achievements as they begin to get through each day successfully.
When suicide is involved, more effective and specific interventions are needed to address school environments and peer dynamics. As an example, it’s critical for educators and other adults to be able to identify whether a student is at higher risk for suicide contagion. According to the NCSCB, there are certain signs that indicate risk for extreme emotional distress during this time.
Outlined in its Guidelines on Response for Death by Suicide, those signs include:
- Presence of a mental health condition, particularly depression;
- Thoughts or talk about suicide or dying;
- Changes in behavior, such as extreme acting out or withdrawal from others;
- Impulsive and high-risk behaviors, such as increased alcohol or substance abuse;
- Talk of a foreshortened future, with an inability to see their place in it.
As the NCSCB notes, “If school staff and other adults perceive the presence of such risk factors—or if reactions to the death persist without significant improvement, a referral for mental health services may be indicated. Response to a death by suicide should not only include the immediate response, but also long-term follow-up and support.”
Addressing Mental Health Needs
Because suicide is often the result of untreated mental illness, addressing mental health needs is often the best way to try to prevent these tragedies. Many parents and teachers incorrectly believe that school-aged children are incapable of experiencing mental health conditions, but that’s simply not the case.
- 13% of children ages 8 to 15 experience a mental health condition.
- 50% of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14.
- 50% of children ages 8 to 15 experiencing a mental health condition don’t receive treatment.
In order to teach children about mental illness and encourage them to seek help, NAMI created NAMI Ending the Silence: free presentations available for students, school staff and families. These in-school presentations teach middle and high school students about the signs and symptoms of mental illness, how to recognize the early warning signs and the importance of acknowledging those warning signs. As one teacher noted in response to the program: “It is amazing what just one day, one talk, can do. You never really know what’s going on in the brain of any particular student.”
Although death and grief can have a profound impact on a school community, resources such as these can provide critical guidance and support for teachers and staff to help their students before and after a tragedy. Hopefully, one day, we won’t need these resources anymore.
Colleen O'Day is a Digital PR Manager and supports community outreach for 2U Inc.'s social work, mental health, and education programs. Find her on Twitter @ColleenMODay.