The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people ages 10-24, amounting to about 4,600 lives lost each year. Unfortunately, many more people in this age group attempt suicide: 16 percent of high school students report seriously considering suicide; 13 percent report creating a plan; and 8 percent report having tried to take their own life in the last 12 months. Each year, that’s roughly 157,000 young people (ages 10-24) receiving medical care for self-inflicted injuries at emergency departments.1
Not all young people are equally at risk.
Suicide affects all youth, but some groups are at higher risk than others. Boys are more likely than girls to die from suicide, with males representing 81 percent of reported deaths in the 10-24 age group. Girls, however, are more likely to report attempting suicide. Additionally, Native American and Alaskan Native youth have the highest rates of suicide-related fatalities. In high schools, Hispanic youth were more likely to report attempting suicide than their peers.1
School personnel are well-positioned to identify students at risk.
Several factors can put a young person at greater risk for suicide; they include:
- Alcohol or drug abuse;
- Anti-depressant drug use;
- Easy access to lethal methods such as firearms, poisons, or other means of committing suicide
- Exposure to the suicidal behavior of others;
- Family history of suicide;
- History of depression or other mental illness;
- History of previous suicide attempts;
- Incarceration; and
- Stressful life event or loss.1
The presence of bullying in the school community also is linked to elevated risks of suicidal thoughts and attempts—both for those who are victimized and for those who are perpetrating. There is some evidence that this link is stronger among students in urban settings.2
Working together, school personnel can reduce the risk of suicide.
Schools can prepare by developing written protocols, assigning roles and ensuring appropriate training for staff. Written protocols should address:
- On-campus screening measures and universal prevention efforts, which may include forming or strengthening community partnerships;
- Steps and strategies school stakeholders can take if a youth suicide occurs; and
- Steps and strategies for outreach and response to families.
Schools should consider who among the campus community is best able to:
- Establish and/or maintain relationships with mental health service providers, especially when provider services are coordinated by partner organizations;
- Implement the suicide response protocol and tools;
- Educate and train staff on how to respond to students at risk of suicide, as well as to assess, refer and follow up with students;
- Educate families on suicide and related mental health issues, and conduct outreach;
- Implement a prevention program targeting student engagement; and
- Implement a suicide screening program, with support from families, community mental health providers and staff.
Find programs for students, families and staff in Preventing Suicide: High School Toolkit3 from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Additionally, schools can work on campus-specific factors that contribute to suicide. The American Federation of Teachers has materials on preventing bullying.
School personnel also have a role to play after a suicide occurs.
The AFT has found that most educators feel unprepared to assist grieving students.4 In response, we have worked with several local affiliates and the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement to develop materials and training programs. Learn more at "Supporting the grieving student."
- The Chicago Teachers Union created Support for Grieving Students: A Guide for Educators.
- The National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement has contributed to the development of other great resources, such as Guidelines for Responding to the Death of a Student or School Staff and Guidelines for Schools Responding to a Death by Suicide.
- The National Alliance for Grieving Children cultivates resources for any adult who wishes to provide support to a bereaved child or teen, with specific support for holidays and crisis situations.
- GLAAD has specific resources on how to talk about suicides of LGBTQ youth.
- Scholastic has a sympathy card template, as well as lesson plans.
- The AFT is working with the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement and a broader coalition to develop a website focused specifically on how school communities can handle children’s bereavement needs. The site is slated to launch in January 2015.
Some members of the school community may experience trauma after a suicide.
Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s function and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being. –SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach 5
The experience of trauma impedes healthy development because it establishes a power differential that pushes people to wonder, “Why me?” In the context of this powerlessness and questioning, students, families and/or school staff may feel humiliation, shame, guilt, betrayal or silencing. As a result, they experience adverse effects such as an inability to handle normal stressors; impaired relationships or trust; and/or problems with behavior regulation, emotional expression, memory, attention or thinking. By recognizing the signs and symptoms of trauma among members of the school community after a suicide, and by integrating an understanding of trauma and its impact into policies, procedures and practices, schools can help people experiencing trauma return to resiliency.5
Find trauma-informed intervention models at SAMHSA's National Center for Trauma-Informed Care.
3Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Preventing Suicide: A Toolkit for High Schools. HHS Publication No. SMA-12-4669. Rockville, Md. Center for Mental Health Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2012.
4American Federation of Teachers. (2012). Training Gap Limits Educators' Ability to Help Grieving Students. [Press release]. Retrieved from http://www.aft.org/press-release/training-gap-limits-educators-ability-help-grieving-students.