Suicide among the youth population has become a public health issue. Current statistics show that the suicide rate among adolescents and young adults aged 10–24 in the United States increased 57.4% from 6.8 per 100,000 in 2007 to 10.7 in 2018 (Curtin SC. State suicide rates among adolescents and young adults aged 10–24: United States, 2000–2018. National Vital Statistics Reports; vol 69 no 11. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2020). In addition, there was a 41.4% increase in suicide death rates among youth aged 10–24 years in Illinois between 2007–2009 to 2016–2018. These statistics highlight the importance of supporting the mental health needs of youth across the nation and within the state of Illinois.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) describes suicide attempts within younger children as often impulsive. These attempts may be related to various feelings such as sadness, confusion, anger or problems related to attention and hyperactivity. In teenagers, suicide attempts may be related to feelings of stress, self-doubt, pressure to succeed, financial uncertainty, disappointment, and loss. Some youth may see suicide as a solution to these challenges.
The AACAP note that common risk factors associated with suicide are:
- Family history of suicide attempts
- Exposure to violence
- Aggressive or disruptive behavior
- Access to firearms
- Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
- Acute loss or rejection
The AACAP also notes warning signs that are associated with suicide:
- Changes in eating or sleeping habits
- Frequent or pervasive sadness
- Withdrawal from friends, family, and regular activities
- Frequent complaints about physical symptoms often related to emotions, such as stomachaches, headaches, fatigue, etc.
- Decline in the quality of schoolwork
- Preoccupation with death and dying
- Giving away prized possessions
Through increased awareness and preventative measures, youth are better informed on ways to cope with the challenges faced in adolescent years and better understand options for seeking help before harm. The resources below present ways to discuss suicide and suicide prevention with high school students.
Best Practices and Implications for Professional Practice
Youth who may be having thoughts of suicide may not formally seek help. Recognizing the warning signs is key in getting a student the help they need and keeping them safe. The National Association of School Psychologist provides actions to take when youth show signs of considering suicide:
- Remain calm.
- Ask the youth directly if he or she is thinking about suicide (e.g., "Are you thinking of suicide?").
Focus on your concern for their well-being and avoid being accusatory.
- Reassure them that there is help and they will not feel like this forever.
- Do not judge.
- Provide constant supervision. Do not leave the youth alone.
- Remove means for self-harm.
- Get help: No one should ever agree to keep a youth's suicidal thoughts a secret and instead should tell an appropriate caregiving adult, such as a parent, teacher, or school psychologist. Parents should seek help from school or community mental health resources, as soon as possible. School staff should take the student to a school-employed mental health professional or administrator.
Safe2Help Illinois Website Resources:
- Illinois Youth Suicide Prevention Toolkit by The Illinois State Board of Education This document provides ready-to-use, practical procedures as well as guidance for modifying these procedures to fit the needs of districts and schools. It can be used as a toolkit for suicide prevention and intervention planning and serve as a resource in the identification process for staff members. Areas covered are as follows:
- Developing and implementing promotional prevention activities (creating a safe and supportive school environment);
- Identifying and implementing strategies to help identify students at risk of suicide; and
- Outlining and implementing procedures for responding to students at risk for suicide.
- Illinois Youth Resources for Mental Health, Well-Being & Resilience by The Illinois Health and Hospital Association This guide has an emphasis on suicide prevention and marginalized youth. Included is a forum which is comprised of expert administrative and clinical professionals across the state. In addition to serving as a trusted resource, this guide is also intended to support community collaboration and coordination to enhance health and well-being.
- Preventing Youth Suicide: Tips for Parents & Educators from the National Association of School Psychologists
- Save a Friend: Tips for Teens to Prevent Suicide from National Association of School Psychologists
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline highlights help available to youth who may be struggling with negative feelings and taking care of self.
- Health Problems Series Suicide Prevention by The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth These activities will help students understand when and how to get help for themselves or classmates.
- Preventing Suicide: The Role of High School Teachers The Suicide Prevention Resource Center provides key steps to reduce suicide risk among students. This resource includes tips to identify who might be at risk, signs of immediate or serious risk, responses to at risk students, responding to a suicide death, and school wide suicide prevention.
- National Safe Place is a national youth outreach and prevention program for immediate help and safety.
- Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide provides teachers with free online training and resources for parents, educators, and teens.
- Michigan’s Holding On To Life Toolkit contains information on: Why are adolescents so moody, What should I remove from my home right now, How do I know if a loved one is suicidal, Do I need to watch for suicide, How to handle the return to school, What should I say to a love one, Why am I feeling this way, and How should I help. It also includes a section on safety planning and a “My Safety Plan” worksheet.
- The National Suicide Prevention Hotline We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources, and best practices for professionals.
Sample Classroom Strategies
IL SEL Standards:
- Goal 1: Develop self-awareness and self-management skills to achieve school and life success.
- Goal 2: Use social-awareness and interpersonal skills to establish and maintain positive relationships.
- Goal 3: Demonstrate decision-making skills and responsible behaviors in personal, school, and community contexts.
These activities can be used to address the Illinois SEL Standards.
a. Suicide Prevention from PBS In the Mix/Metropolitan Life Foundation
- Have a guest speaker who has worked on a suicide crisis line speak to the class.
- Have a guest speaker who treats suicidal students (psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker, etc.) speak to the class.
- Have students research teenage suicide statistics, comparing today with the previous 10, 20, or 30 years.
• Have students dialogue ways they express their sadness with their parents and have parents record the answers to hand in to the teacher.
• Have students list names of people who could help them when they are sad and look up their phone numbers.
• Discuss ways that students can stay "safe" (i.e., talk out their troubles with parent, teacher or trusted adult friend; stay away from dangerous firearms; get an officer when they are confused or lost, etc.).
b. PBS- Teaching resources for talking with teens about suicide
- Watch the video.
- Have a class discussion around the questions below:
- Why is it important for young people to learn about suicide prevention and awareness?
- What is the best way to learn how to talk about suicide? Keep in mind that for a long time, and even at present, adults and young people — for a variety of reasons — do not feel comfortable discussing suicide. What might change people’s attitude towards talking about suicide and lessen the stigma around the issue?
c. PBS- How the news, Netflix and social media influence how schools talk about suicide
- Watch the video.
- Have a class discussion around the questions below:
- How important is it to talk about suicide at school?
- Why are mental health experts concerned about the media (i.e. Netflix, social media, Youtube, news outlets, etc.) sensationalizing suicide?
- Youtube has policies that prohibit certain graphic material. Why were these policies created? What should happen if a person does not follow these policies?
- Media literacy: What is vlogging? What are positive and negative effects of vlogging?
- Given celebrity vloggers’ popularity with young people, should they be held more accountable for their actions, particularly around sensitive issues, including suicide?
- What should you do if you are worried about the mental health of yourself or a friend, including thoughts of suicide? Who are people you can talk with? Why is it important to talk with someone about your feelings?
d. Suicide Prevention from Students Against Violence Everywhere
Students will 1) Understand what suicide is; 2) Identify possible warning signs; 3) Gain an understanding of suicide prevention methods; 4) Learn how to respond in potential suicidal situations; and 5) Know who to talk to and where to get help.
e. Helping Friends Who Are Depressed or Suicidal from The Samaritans of Rhode Island Through these activities students will 1) Make responsible decisions regarding signs of depression and/or suicide; 2) Possess an understanding of the importance of communicating these signs to others;
3) Demonstrate, through role playing, the skills of “listening” and “befriending”; and 4) Read and comprehend informational materials to develop an understanding of suicide and prevention.