Mental health issues in children and teenagers have increased dramatically in the United States in the last decade. Depression in teenagers increased a staggering 59% between 2007 – 2017. Suicide is the second leading cause of deathin ages 10 – 24. As a result of these statistics, the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends pediatricians screen patients aged 10 – 21 for depression annually. A lot can happen in between annual pediatrician visits, so it’s important the people who are in children’s lives every day, including parents and teachers, are aware of the signs.
Teen suicide warning signs:
Jason Drake sees children and teens with suicidal ideation frequently as a social worker atKaty Teen and Family Counseling in the Houston, Texas area. He advises teachers to be on the watch for the following signs:
- A child or teen talking about suicide or reporting suicidal ideation. (Suicidal ideation is thinking of suicide without a plan to act.)
- A marked change in personality (such as a child going from happy and outgoing to sad and withdrawn, or easy-going and mild-tempered to aggressive behavior, etc.)
- Preoccupation with death and/or suicide
- Drawings with suicidal themes
- Writing about suicide
- Fantasizing what it would be like to die or to simply not be around anymore
- Change in appearance (such as from neat and clean to disheveled)
- A sudden drop in academic performance
- Giving away things that are valuable or sentimental
Drake says it is crucial teachers pay attention to these signs and not brush off concerns. “Many people do not want to believe or envision a child or teen having suicidal ideation, plan, or intent. It’s heartbreaking to think of anyone, in particular a child or teen, in so much emotional pain.”
He also explains some kids are very good at keeping their pain hidden, so it’s important adults take action when they catch glimpses of potential issues. “I’ve noticed how much more kids and teens today are able to hide what they feel on the inside while presenting a different picture on the outside. If you are looking on the outside, many times no one would ever suspect the inner turmoil they feel.”
Reasons for teen suicide and suicidal ideation:
There are many different reasons someone may contemplate ending their life. According to the Mayo Clinic few of the triggers may include:
- Mental illness (depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, etc.)
- Grief or other emotional crisis
- Family issues
- Medication side effects
- Questioning sexuality
- Foster care or adoption
- Traumatic experiences
- Medical issues
- Being exposed to the suicide of a family member, friend, or classmate
Drake says, “Many teens are hurting. Some are simply looking for a way to end the pain. Nothing has worked for them thus far, and as a result, they are contemplating suicide.”
What teachers should do if they suspect a child is in crisis:
Drake says it is critical schools train teachers and staff on how to identify warning signs of suicidality in children and teens. It is imperative teachers know what to do if the signs are present. He suggests:
- Bring in the school counselor or psychologist. If you have concerns about a student, walk the child to the school counselor or psychologist. Discreetly explain your concerns before leaving the child in their care. These professionals are trained to access the situation more thoroughly and can also inquire about possible causes for the feelings, such as abuse, depression, or social issues.
- Report suspected abuse. Remember teachers, counselors, administrators, and other school staff are mandated reporters. If a child or teen is experiencing abuse it is necessary to make a call to child protection services.
- Ask the student if they are thinking about suicide. Students will sometimes bring the subject up to a teacher they trust. In these cases, asking the student outright if they have thought about suicide may be the best course of action. Drake advises having another teacher, school counselor, or administrator with you when having this conversation.
- Do not leave the child alone. If you suspect a student may harm themselves, do not leave them alone.
- Communicate with the child’s guardians. Schools should report observations, concerns, and conversations with the student to their guardians. They should also provide information about community resources.
- Always err on the side of caution. “The last thing anyone wants is a missed opportunity to prevent suicide due to being uncomfortable in addressing the topic with the child or teen. There is no downside in intervening and being wrong. However, there are significant consequences for those who did not intervene and were right,” Drake urges.
Child and teen suicide resources for educators:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. This number is manned 24/7 every day of the year.
- Suicide Prevention Resource Center offers webinars, labs, and training.
- Trevor Project is dedicated to preventing suicide in LGBTQ+ youth. They have free training available to teachers.
- Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide offers extensive training and resources to teachers.
- National Institute of Mental Health (NAMI) offers tons of information about suicide and a wide range of other mental health topics.
- Suicide Prevention Resource Center offers information, resources, and training.
- Kids Health has suicide prevention lesson plans for teachers to use with grades 9-12.
- National Association of School Psychologists offers resources, articles, best practices, and more in regards to the role of the school in preventing child and teen suicide.
- PBS has a guide for teachers on talking to students about suicide.
- Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) was founded by a mother who lost her daughter to suicide. It offers education, training, and support.
- Crisis Text Lineis a way for teens to reach out for help through text. Post the number on your classroom walls and website. Text HOME to 741-741
- #Bethe1To is a campaign from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to educate the public about the steps to take if they think someone is suicidal: ask, be there, keep them safe, help them connect, and follow up.
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention has data and resources.
One in six high school students seriously considers suicide, so it is urgent teachers are aware of the warning signs and feel empowered to act on concerns. However, there’s hope – research shows just one supportive adult in a child’s life reduces teen suicide risk by 40%. Many teens report the person who helped them through dark times was a teacher.