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Youth Suicide Prevention

Role of the School

The National Association of School Psychologists summarized the school's role as follows (Poland & Lieberman, 2003):

Detection/Awareness

All school personnel (including teachers, paraprofessionals, administrators, support staff, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers) who interact with students on a regular basis should know the warning signs of suicide and the importance of sharing their concerns about a student with an appropriate adult, such as the school counselor.

Parent Notification

School personnel who are aware that a student is considering suicide must contact the student's parents or guardians. Ideally, this contact should be made face to face and should include recommendations to parents about how to decrease the risk of suicide by increasing supervision, removing lethal means, and finding appropriate mental health services for the young person. A confidential record of parent notifications should be kept.

Support for Students at Risk of Suicide

School personnel, including psychologists and counselors, should support students who are at risk of suicide with counseling, monitoring, and follow-up services.
Create a positive school climate, which refers to both the physical and aesthetic qualities of the school, as well as the emotional and psychological qualities of the school. The emotional and psychological qualities of a school refer to the attitudes, beliefs, and feelings of the faculty, staff, and students.

  • 1. The physical environment includes campus walkways and grounds, parking lots, school vehicles, cafeterias, bathrooms, gymnasiums, classrooms, and the equipment that is used in each of these places
  • 2. Both qualities have a direct effect on the health, safety, performance, and the feeling of connectedness the staff and students have for their school.

Connectedness

Connectedness is extremely important to suicide prevention. Research has shown that students who feel connected to their school (e.g., felt teachers treated them fairly, felt close to people at school, felt like a part of their school) are less likely to experience suicidal thoughts and experience emotional distress. The National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health surveyed more than 90,000 students (grades 7–12) and found that students’ feeling of connectedness was the number one protective factor against suicidal behavior. Students who feel connected to the school are also less likely to drink alcohol, carry weapons, or engage in other delinquent behavior.

Research suggests that schools that wish to foster a feeling of connectedness in students should consider providing students with after school activities or clubs, allowing students some involvement in decision making relating to issues that will affect them within their school, and creating small-sized student learning groups where students can discuss bias, prejudice, and the fair and equal treatment of all students in the school.

Research has shown that when students participate in decisions regarding their school and their community they tend to be healthier and more productive. Assigning students roles in the school is an essential element for ensuring a healthy school climate. Students can play important roles in the school, acting as office helpers, classroom helpers, hallway monitors, school council members, or play a primary role in any number of student school committees such as a safe school planning committee.

In the past, these jobs have been under-advertised to students who don’t “excel.” These jobs have been offered more as a reward to those who have succeeded in the past instead of as an opportunity for those who may have failed in the past and now feel discouraged or intimidated. Some suggest that these “underachievers” should be actively involved in such opportunities because these individuals may be the most at-risk for suicidal or violent behavior. Through their involvement with the school, these students (those potentially at-risk) may feel more connected to the school, which has been found to be an important protective factor for suicidal behaviors and ideations

There are several strategies that schools can implement in order to make students’ learning environment the safest possible and most productive. Lack of physical and/ or emotional safety is likely to result in unconstructive educational outcomes such as poor academic performance or truancy. Research has shown that students who feel victimized by other students or staff have an elevated risk of suicidal ideations and behaviors. It is critical that schools set high expectations on all staff to behave respectfully and kindly to others, as adolescents tend to watch and mimic the behaviors they observe in adults. Teachers should fashion a classroom where students feel respected, supported, and feel comfortable approaching an adult when confronted with problems.
Research shows that a positive relationship with an adult, not necessarily with a teacher, is one of the most critical factors in preventing student violence, suicide, and bullying, as students need to feel comfortable enough to share potentially dangerous information.

Research

Research has also found that adolescents are most likely to know in advance about a potentially dangerous and violent situation, particularly suicidal behavior or thoughts from peers. For this reason, it is important for schools to create ways for students to feel comfortable enough about providing information to an adult when confronted with a potentially dangerous situation. Students should be provided a list of adults in school that they may contact if they feel unsafe or if they have knowledge about a potentially dangerous situation, and the difference between “ratting out someone” and reporting a situation should be clearly distinguished. Students are more likely to feel connected to their school if they believe that they are being treated fairly, feel safe, and believe that teachers are supportive.