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Recognizing the Most Common Risk Factors for Youth Suicide

It’s hard to fathom children as young as 10 would want to end their lives, let alone devise suicide plans and attempt to carry them out, yet this is an alarming truth that educators, guidance counselors, school psychologists and families must address.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and because most children and teenagers are in school approximately half the days of each year, schools must play a leading role in trying to curb this disturbing trend. The best place to start is by providing comprehensive training so all school staff can recognize the common risk factors for youth suicide.

Certainly, school psychologists play a key role in this effort. Thanks to their mental health training and interactions with a broad spectrum of teachers, staff and students, psychologists are among the best-positioned K12 employees to lead youth suicide prevention efforts on any given campus.

Guidance counselors also play an important role in suicide awareness and prevention. In fact, the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) encourages its members to take a leadership role in helping other school staff members learn to recognize and respond to suicide risk. However, not every guidance counselor feels adequately prepared to recognize the most common risk factors for youth suicide. A 2020 study of professional school counselors from throughout the United States found that 74% of school counselors reported receiving some training in student suicide risk assessment, averaging about 12 hours each, but less than 14% said they felt “very prepared” in crisis response and post-suicide intervention methods. A 2018 study of high school counselors revealed that only 59% felt prepared to recognize an at-risk student.

It’s also important to note that few schools are adequately staffed with mental health professionals. The ASCA’s recommended student-to-counselor ratio is 250 to 1, but the association reported a national average of 424 students for every school counselor in 2019-20, the most recent year for which data has been released. The National Association of School Psychologists recommends that schools have at least one school psychologist on staff for every 500 students but reports a national average of 1 to 1,211.

These statistics indicate there are not nearly enough mental health professionals on school campuses to address the growing problem of youth suicide without assistance from other school staff members, all of whom are key to identifying signs that a student is considering suicide. Combined with the alarming suicide rate among youth aged 10 and older, the data also indicates a critical need for training in recognizing signs that a student may be contemplating suicide.

Causes of Suicidal Tendencies Among Youth

As baffling as the adolescent suicide rate may seem, research has identified some common risk factors shared by many teens and preteens who consider, attempt or commit suicide. Scott Poland, Ed.D., is the director of the Suicide and Violence Prevention Office at Nova Southeastern University and an internationally recognized expert on school safety and youth suicide prevention. He identifies the most common cause of youth suicidal tendencies as untreated or undertreated mental illness, often in combination with an adverse childhood experience (ACE), such as:

  • Rejection from a natural parent
  • Abuse — physical, emotional, or sexual
  • Living in poverty
  • Living with a mentally ill parent
  • Being targeted by or involved in bullying, including cyberbullying

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry lists these additional risk factors:

  • Family history of suicide attempts
  • Exposure to violence
  • Access to firearms

In addition, as noted by the CDC, young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are more likely to consider committing suicide than their peers who identify as heterosexual.

Pitfalls of the Digital Age

Many in the mental health field have tracked the rise in youth suicide rates to the popularity of social media and increased Internet usage among adolescents. There are ongoing studies of how digital dependency, which often leads to lack of adequate sleep and isolation from real-world social activities, may contribute to thoughts of suicide. Moreover, the phenomenon of social media has provided opportunities for harassment and bullying behavior like never before. In fact, a National Institutes of Health study of 2,000 middle school children found that victims of cyberbullying were almost two times as likely to attempt suicide as classmates who were not. Additionally, those perpetrating the cyberbullying attacks were 1.5 times as likely to attempt suicide as were students who were neither victims nor offenders.

Signs that a Student Is at Risk

Knowing the common risk factors for youth suicide is only the first step in tackling the problem. It’s just as important to recognize signs that a student may be thinking of suicide. According to the Mayo Clinic, here are some of the signs a teen or preteen might display when contemplating suicide:

  • Making statements about suicide, such as “I’m going to kill myself”
  • Changing social behavior or becoming withdrawn
  • Engaging in risky or self-destructive activities
  • Displaying personality changes
  • Giving away cherished belongings
  • Indulging in increased alcohol or drug use

When a student shows signs of being suicidal, it’s critical for school psychologists and counselors to follow school protocol, which likely includes notifying school administrators, parents and the appropriate authorities and community agencies. It’s also important all staff who interact with students be able to recognize the signs of an at-risk student and know what to do. School psychologists or guidance counselors would benefit from a partner that can provide suicide awareness and prevention programs designed to keep all faculty and staff on the alert for at-risk students so the full responsibility of identifying students in need is spread throughout the school.

Staff Development Options from Navigate360

Navigate360 is a company that’s dedicated to empowering people, schools and communities with the tools needed to stay safe and thrive — physically, socially and emotionally. That’s why we developed a first-of-its-kind suicide awareness and prevention program to help schools save lives. This evidence-based program includes curriculum authored by leading expert Dr. Scott Poland, an internationally recognized authority on youth suicide and director of the Suicide and Violence Prevention Office at NSU Florida. The comprehensive curriculum combines with anonymous tip reporting and behavioral threat assessment case management technologies to provide a robust solution that helps all school staff understand how to identify suicide risk in students and provide consistent, evidence-based screening and intervention.

For more information on this program, please check out our guide titled Expert Insights on Youth Suicide Awareness and Prevention in K-12 Schools. Feel free to contact us today to schedule a safety consultation.

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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