Responding to Suicidal Students
Suicide is one of the leading causes of death among teenagers, and depression and anxiety in that age group have skyrocketed. Any group that works with older children and teenagers is likely to encounter a client who expresses suicidal thoughts. The good news is that there are many resources that will help you respond.
Level of Responsibility = Level of Supervision
As a general rule, your legal responsibility will track your supervision responsibility (as always, check with a lawyer in your state to confirm your specific legal obligation). At one end of the spectrum are sports and special-interest activities, where parents remain responsible for supervising their children. At the other end are residential camps and schools, where staff are responsible for the children 24 hours a day. Mentoring programs, non-residential schools, and day camps will fall somewhere between those two extremes.
If your program doesn’t accept supervision, then in most states you have little legal obligation beyond letting the parents know of your concerns. If, on the other hand, you stand in the place of the parents, then you have a responsibility to keep children safe, even from themselves. Thus, you need a plan for recognizing and responding to suicidal clients.
Passive Ideation or Active Plan
Most mental health experts distinguish between “passive ideation” and active plans. The former is a vague wish while the latter is a specific plan with intent. Both situations are serious, but they require different responses.
For non-crisis situations, experts recommend the following principles:
- Know the risk factors and warning signs.
- Stay calm. This is a serious situation, but it is one that you can handle.
- Take the child’s expressions seriously. Never dismiss what they say as just seeking attention. A young person may not actually want to be dead, but just express the pain that they are feeling. Any level of self-harm is dangerous, and all too many children have accidentally killed themselves.
- Focus on your concern for them, and avoid expressions that they are somehow broken. The typical teenager’s fear of being different from his or her peers extends to this level of anxiety and depression, and they may be motivated to hide their feelings to avoid being singled out.
- Reassure them that they will not have these feelings forever, and that help is available.
- Tell their parents and ask them how you can assist with their mental health plans.
- If you have a duty of supervision, make it constant. Avoid giving them an opportunity to act on their impulses.
- Document your conversations with the student and with their parents.
For crisis situations, you need to have a plan that your staff can implement. One good source is the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.
The Georgia Department of Education offers a plethora of resources you can access regarding suicide prevention and helping a child in crisis, including evidence-based training models and online courses. In addition, NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, conducts teacher training and youth-in-crisis instructor programs throughout the year.
You can learn how to respond to a youth in crisis. Trained professionals are always ready to help, many of whom are available 24 hours a day. The United Way of Metro Atlanta offers numerous suicide prevention hotlines.
Given the levels of anxiety and depression that our young people experience, many of us will encounter this very serious issue sooner or later. Fortunately, we can help our clients through these problems and support them in finding a solution.
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