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School Counselors: Here’s How to Talk to Teachers About Suicidal Students

Communication is key when it comes to youth suicide prevention. That’s why it’s so important for counselors to promote open discussions of the topic with both students and teachers. Knowing the signs of a student in crisis and providing them with the support they need can help prevent a tragedy. And if a student is known to be suicidal, communicating the risk to their teachers is imperative to their wellbeing.

Suicidal Ideation Is an Emergency Situation

The grim truth from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is that suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 10–34. Every instance of suicide ideation must be treated like an emergency situation that requires immediate intervention. When a student at your school is displaying signs of crisis like making suicidal statements or imitating suicidal behavior, notify the principal and the student’s teachers. You don’t need to provide faculty with great detail, but you do want to ensure they take the student’s actions seriously and provide appropriate supervision, like walking them to the principal’s office rather than letting them go alone.

Youth Suicide Risks

Students at every age level are at risk of suicide. In younger children, suicide ideation is often impulsive and influenced by negative feelings such as anger, sadness, and confusion, or behavioral disorders such as hyperactivity. Suicide attempts by teenagers are often driven by academic and societal stress, self-doubt, uncertainty of the future, and loss. It doesn’t help that the prefrontal cortex (responsible for planning and decision-making) of the teenage brain is not yet fully developed, as this makes teenagers even more vulnerable to suicide. Add to this natural disadvantage the profound impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on student mental health: 1 in 3 teenage girls and 1 in 5 teenage boys have experienced new or worsening anxiety since the start of quarantine in March 2020, according to a poll conducted by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. Considering how great the risk of youth suicide is, it’s imperative that you help teachers understand why all instances of suicidal ideation must be taken seriously.

Suicidal Statements

Any suicidal statement, however in jest it may seem, is a red flag that may signal a student in crisis. Even elementary school students, who may not fully understand what they’re saying, should be monitored if they make a suicidal statement, according to Dr. Scott Poland, an internationally recognized expert on school safety and youth suicide. Currently a professor at the College of Psychology and director of the Suicide and Violence Prevention Office at Nova Southeastern University, Dr. Poland partnered with Navigate360 to help author our suicide awareness and prevention eLearning curriculum and provide guidance for our suicide screening and case management platform. In one of a series of videos he made with Navigate360, he notes that even though a child may use the phrase “I’m going to kill myself” to get attention, what they’re really saying is, “I need things to change in my life,” a clear cry for help that all faculty members should be able to identify.

Imitating Suicidal Behavior

In another informative video, Dr. Poland points out that adolescents are the one age group that is most likely to imitate suicidal behavior. In fact, he compares it to throwing a rock in a pond and creating a ripple effect throughout the school. And in the unfortunate circumstance when a student dies by suicide, that ripple effect can become dangerous indeed, as other students in crisis may identify with the academic, societal, or familial problems the victim was unable to overcome. Plus, it confirms in their minds that suicide is a feasible solution and gives them a roadmap toward that end. The ripple effect of imitating suicidal behavior, particularly when a student has died by suicide, can lead to a suicide contagion or cluster, wherein a school experiences a high number of suicides among its students in a short amount of time. Though they sound like worst-case scenarios, suicide clusters do happen, making it all the more imperative to inform your school’s teachers of the risk.

How to Respond to Suicide Ideation

When a student is suicidal, their school counselor becomes their case manager who must communicate the risk to the student’s principal, teachers, and parents. The only exception to the latter is if you suspect the student is being abused at home, in which case, a call to Child Protective Services is the most appropriate response. If the student is hospitalized due to a suicide attempt, work with your school’s faculty to create a re-entry plan that ensures the student will receive the support needed when returning to the classroom.

Failing to Take Emergency Action

The consequences of not treating suicide ideation as an emergency can be detrimental. Most schools do the right thing by following the advice of their counselors, but there have been mistakes that led to schools failing at their responsibility to care for students in crisis. In the 1995 Wyke v. Polk County School Board case, the school board was found liable in student Shawn Wyke’s death by suicide due to its “failure to train or supervise its personnel with respect to suicide prevention/intervention.” As your school’s counselor, you are the mental health expert of the facility, and it can’t be overemphasized how important it is to clearly communicate to teachers about students who are suicidal.

What to Do When a Student Dies by Suicide

A student’s death by suicide is a challenging time for schools. To begin the healing process, counselors must help all involved, including the victim’s family, fellow students, teachers, and principal, work through their grief, shock, and confusion. Refer to Dr. Poland’s After a Suicide: A Toolkit for Schools for advice on how to help your school move on from a death by suicide.

An Essential Resource for Youth Suicide Prevention

As a school counselor, you are at the forefront of youth suicide awareness and prevention education within your school, but know that you’re not alone in this vital endeavor. Download the Administrator’s Guide to Addressing & Preventing Suicide, written by Dr. Poland and Navigate360’s subject-matter expert Dr. Crystal Ladwig, for guidance that you can share with teachers and other members of the faculty.

If you or someone you know might be at risk of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or visit their website for additional information. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with the Crisis Text Line.

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