September is known in the mental health community as National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. As the third leading cause of death among young people, it’s an incredibly important topic for educators to receive yearly training and in the moment crisis intervention support.
For me, the realization that student suicide was a potential risk factor in my job was overwhelmingly terrifying. I can remember one of the first clients I ever had as a counseling intern student was a middle schooler who engaged in self-injurious (cutting) behavior and had previously attempted suicide multiple times. I worried endlessly about her, and how I was doing as her therapist. Was I asking the right questions about these behaviors? Was I asking too many questions about these behaviors? What if she attempts, or God forbid, completes suicide while we’re working together as client and therapist? How will I ever come up with something that will help her feel that her life is worth living? I quickly learned if I was going to become this consumed with each client, this career path was going to eat me alive and swallow me whole.
I had to do some serious work on myself, finding skills to better manage my feelings. I scheduled in some extra self-care time (see my blog regarding great ways to take care of your emotional health here) and began to do research on youth suicide in an attempt to feel more competent on the subject…thinking, somewhere I’d find the magic technique, the perfect formula to 1) decrease my students attempts to end their life and 2) decrease my worry that one of my students would commit suicide.
Off I went, googling away. I built a massive library of worksheets and fact sheets and resources centered on the topic of suicide. I gathered information on suicide warning signs, and crisis prevention. I found community based support groups for school aged kiddos suffering from depression or other life stressors (i.e loss of a parent, divorce, bullying etc). Of course I know that all of these resources are no magic technique, and they’re definitely not part of a perfect formula...but over time, I learned they were an important part of increasing suicide awareness among the campus community. Engaging in conversations with students about suicide, asking the question directly have you ever thought about killing yourself? appeared to open up a new line of communication between myself and my students. I noticed the calmer I was when speaking about suicide, the less panicked I was when the answer was yes, I’ve thought about it…I’ve tried it the more willing my students were to talk to be about it. The more willing they were to talk to me about suicide, the calmer and less panicked I felt.
A great mentor of mine gave me two pieces of advice in regards to the act of suicide in general. She said, asking if a person has considered taking their own life, is not going to plant that idea in their mind. If your gut is telling you to bring up the topic of suicide with one of your clients, there is a reason why, and you should trust that feeling. In addition she added, quite often individuals who complete suicide don’t reach out to others, they’ve made their decision. And there is nothing you or I or anyone really can say to change their mind. Initially those last words sank in my stomach like a heavy stone. The thought that a student suffering would not, could not reach out was heartbreaking. But I was able to refocus on the former kernel of hope…. If I can strengthen my comfortability level with being direct with my students, asking about suicidal thoughts or actions outright, and showing that together, we can talk about it maybe that will help improve their outlook on life. Maybe creating a space where it is not only ok but expected that they’re honest with their feelings no matter what they are was the answer I had been looking for.
There is no magic pill or perfect formula to prevent student suicide, or really suicide in general. I know that not talking about it, pretending it’s not an epidemic or that it doesn’t exist just moves children who are suffering further and further into isolation. The greatest thing I think we can do as educators to help raise suicide prevention awareness is to listen and inform.
For more information on how to increase your knowledge in regards to suicide prevention, you can visit the National Alliance on Mental Health’s website here: https://www.nami.org/suicideawarenessmonth/hp