Suicide is a topic that is difficult to talk about. Many people have been affected by suicide, either directly or indirectly, and breaching the topic can be uncomfortable for anyone. However, despite sensitivity around the topic of suicide, healthy discussions about its causes and effects are a critical component of ongoing suicide prevention. For school administrators, that means devising a system of continuing education and training in suicide awareness and prevention for faculty and staff.
Because many educators do not consider themselves mental health experts, it is important to empower them with the tools needed to address alarming youth suicide trends and support the overall mental wellbeing of school communities. And while this might be a difficult topic to bring up, the good news is that suicide awareness and prevention measures can have a lasting impact on both suicide rates and the overall mental wellbeing of both students and staff.
Why Suicide Awareness Education Matters
The core fact of suicide prevention is: Anybody can be the person who makes the difference in saving a student’s life. That is a critical point to consider, because the statistics about suicide can be quite unnerving. Let’s take a look:
- A 2019 study from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention) found that 18.8% of high school-aged youth had seriously considered attempting suicide in the last 12 months.
- According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged between 10 and 34. In fact, a January 2021 poll from Navigate360 and John Zogby Strategies indicates that 3 in 5 teens (59%) know someone who has considered self-harm or suicide.
- A further study by NAMI concluded that 90% of people who die by suicide have experienced symptoms of a mental health condition.
Together these facts illustrate a crucial point about suicide: It is often an issue affecting the most emotionally vulnerable. Education about the warning signs of suicide and suicidal ideation can help school staff and educators identify at-risk students and provide support and resources at a time when they need it most.
Dispelling Common Myths About Suicide
While your school staff may understand the importance of suicide awareness and prevention efforts, there are several persistent myths that can often stop people from attempting to offer help or resources to students they think are struggling.
Below you will find three of the most common myths about suicide, dispelled with help from Dr. Scott Poland, a national suicide awareness and prevention expert regularly recognized for his work in school safety, youth suicide, self-injury, bullying, school crisis prevention and intervention. Dr. Poland, a nationally certified school psychologist, professor at the College of Psychology and director of the Suicide and Violence Prevention Office at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, has authored resources such as the Florida School Toolkit for K-12 Educators to Prevent Suicide (Florida S.T.E.P.S.), and Navigate360’s Suicide Awareness and Prevention Curriculum.
Myth 1: Suicide is a forbidden word
Talking about suicide can be uncomfortable, but discussing it openly and using plain language often leads to positive outcomes.
“Do not be afraid to bring it up and talk about it. If a person is suicidal, it gives them a chance to unburden themselves, know that they’re not the only person to feel this way, and there is help available.” – Dr. Scott Poland, Ed.D., director of Suicide and Violence Prevention Office at NSU Florida.
This unencumbered approach to discussing suicide is an important roadblock to overcome, and is rooted in the second common myth:
Myth 2: Discussing suicide will plant the idea in a vulnerable person’s head
This is an understandable fear that, in most cases, is simply a myth. On the contrary, discussing suicide in straightforward terms often has the opposite effect—that is, demonstrating clearly to the vulnerable person that someone cares enough to ask such a difficult question.
“What you need to do is simply listen. Say, ‘I’m here for you. There is help available. You are not the first person to ever feel this way.’ And we need to get comfortable with simply asking directly, ‘Are you thinking you want to kill yourself?’” — Dr. Scott Poland
Myth 3: Talking about suicide, or the factors that can lead to suicide, will just make everything worse
It makes sense to want to avoid difficult subjects with someone you know is vulnerable. After all, nobody wants to be metaphorically kicked while they’re down. However, not discussing difficult issues can often give the impression that the suicidal person’s problems are a burden or simply too difficult to overcome. Instead, honest conversation can be the difference in making a vulnerable person feel heard, accepted, and understood—even in situations with no clear solutions.
“Resiliency is really a learned behavior. When you’re surrounded by loving and caring family and friends, you do better when you’re optimistic about the future.” – Dr. Scott Poland
Suicide Awareness & Prevention Training for School Staff
Removing common myths and stereotypes associated with suicide is a critical component of any suicide prevention program, but how much training do different staff members need to be effective? Dr. Scott Poland, Ed.D., recommends training to be done annually for every single staff member who interacts with students. Watch this video to learn more:
Role-specific training should be extended to all members of school personnel, including ancillary staff such as cafeteria employees, janitorial staff, or bus drivers. This approach works because it unifies all school staff around a common goal—suicide awareness and prevention—while giving them the individual tools they need to be most effective.
Empower Your Faculty
While discussing suicide and developing strategies to educate students and staff about its causes can be difficult, but there are answers out there. To find out more about some of the most current and up-to-date strategies around suicide, download the Administrators Guide to Addressing and Preventing Suicide.
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.