This may be a challenging read, especially for those who have experienced self-harm or suicidal thoughts, know someone who has experienced suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide. Many of us are affected by this topic, so please take a break if you need to.
“Suicide means to end your life intentionally. Experiencing thoughts of suicide can be frightening. Thoughts of suicide can seemingly come from nowhere or begin as fleeting thoughts of wanting to disappear or escape. They may progress into feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness and planning or taking steps to end your life.” (PAPYRUS, 2021)
As teachers and education professionals keeping young people safe is often spoken about in safeguarding training. However, self-harm & suicide may not be a common feature of this training. By having a basic understanding of suicide awareness, we can feel more prepared to respond to a situation in which you need to ask a student about suicide, or a student comes to you with these concerns about themselves or classmate.
If you notice worrying behaviours ensure you are able to have a conversation with the individual away from other pupils. Asking about suicide does not put the thought into a student’s mind, and does not make a student more likely to attempt suicide.
So what are the risk factors for suicide?
Risk factors might be situational or behavioural.
Situational risk factors could be currently happening or experienced in the past. These could include:
Behavioural risk factors could include:
These are not exhaustive lists. We are not able to read people’s minds, so if we have concerns, we need to talk directly to a young person about suicide.
Teachers play an invaluable role in assisting with their pupils. Whilst we are preparing ourselves to help others we must also look after ourselves; we’ve got some advice and guidance on this in the teacher wellbeing section. As with all matters of mental health taking time to gain suicide awareness helps to build confidence in what to do and how to support early intervention and prevention.
There are two aspects of suicide: Suicidal Ideation (thoughts) and suicidal behaviour (attempts).
How to approach a young person about Suicidal Ideation (SI) & Suicidal Behaviour (SB)
Of course, it may be uncomfortable for the student to talk to a staff member about suicide, but if an individual has already been thinking about suicide then they are already emotionally distressed, so do not put off this conversation to avoid upsetting the individual.
Being prepared means having the details of organisations that can help with suicidal thoughts and depression. Some organisations are only open to specific groups e.g. LGBTQ+, under 18s, or men, so be sure to check they are applicable to the young person you are going to speak to.
It may help to print out a leaflet or contact details for the organisation to physically hand over during the conversation.
Being prepared for the conversation is more important than having the perfect words to say.
Some students may be reluctant to talk about suicide.
Try to find a private space where the young person will feel comfortable talking to you and use the ‘Be CLEAR’ steps to facilitate the conversation.
Check for suicidal thoughts and intentions
State your concerns: Let them know you have been concerned about them, stating the specific signs you have noticed.
You could say something like “I have noticed that you are more tired than usual, and that you have been crying a lot. How are you feeling?”. By using open questions, you invite the young person to share with you how they are feeling. Closed questions such as “are you okay?” may lead to the young person brushing off your concerns if they are not followed up with more open questions.
Try not to feel rejected if a student asks ‘why do you care?’ Many people will push someone who is being caring away when they are feeling distressed. When a student is feeling low, they may feel as if that they do not deserve help.
Letting someone know you are thinking about suicide can feel like a big step for both the student and professional. It is best to remain calm.
Use the Word Suicide
It is important to be direct and use the word suicide. This reduces the chance of any misinterpretation about what you are trying to ask.
For example, “You’re not thinking about doing anything silly are you?” minimises the distress of the young person, and may make them feel small.
Ask them directly if they are having any thoughts about suicide. If yes – check whether they have made any plans and do not leave the young person alone.
Listen to their story
It’s important to listen to a young person non-judgmentally, give them time to communicate how they feel and let you know what’s been going on for them.
Statements that may that indicate the young person is experiencing depression include:
Feeling like a burden
Feeling ‘fed up’
Generalising e.g. ‘everything is wrong, everyone hates me’
Empathise and inform
Reassure them that they do not have to cope with this alone – that you are there to help and to get them the right support.
Many people will respond with statements such as “Think about your family/friends”. These are unhelpful as they can add to feelings of guilt that are characteristic of depression. Remember the young person is not choosing to feel suicidal. Suicide can often seem like the only option left to those with depression. Many will feel as if they are a burden to their family or friends, and that they would be better off without them.
Acknowledge distress, don’t minimise.
Ask if they have seen a health professional, such as their GP or a counsellor.
Apply self-help techniques
Ask about their support network and if there is not an immediate crisis – help them make a plan of what has helped in the past and what could help now.
After you have signposted to helpful resources and/or services, schedule a definite time to speak to the student again, to ensure they feel supported.
Refer to a health professional
If a young person is in crisis or immediate danger, it is vital that they see a health professional. Do not leave them alone.
Have a plan of how you will get this help in place before you start the conversation, for example who will accompany the young person to A&E, and how they will get there. This might mean arranging an accompanied emergency visit to their GP or a hospital A&E unit. Should there be additional risk factors; the police can be contacted to help arrange an assessment of a young person in a place of safety.
What if the young person does not want any help? None of us are able to solve every problem we face and sometimes a young person’s wellbeing becomes the most important focus. If you have serious concerns about a young person’s mental health you should contact your mental health representative in your school (sometimes this might be a headteacher or deputy head) or contact professional mental health support.