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Driving Awareness on Student Suicide: This Week's Focus

In recognition of National Suicide Prevention Week, this is the first in a series of posts on preventing and coping with student suicide. For more information on National Suicide Prevention Week, follow the hashtag

This week is National Suicide Prevention Week.

All across the country, experts, families, friends, and potential victims are sharing their stories, and messages of hope. You can join the conversation here: #NSPW16.

It’s a sad truth that suicide affects everyone: no age group, gender, or race is immune to the devastation wrought by the loss of a loved one. Some of the most vulnerable populations are the most at-risk—suffering veterans, or at-risk students.

Young people are increasingly vulnerable to self-harm.

Back in June, we wrote a post on ways to fight back against this upsetting trend.

Now, as we shine a light on suicide prevention—and as students return to school—it’s worth reminding ourselves of the important role schools can play in fighting back against self-inflicted tragedy.

Let’s face it: Adolescence is hard.

Up and down hormones and the often cruel gauntlet of middle and high school social life create very real physical and emotional challenges for a lot of students.

These pressures have only grown more intense in recent years, thanks to the rise of smart phones and social media. You’ve seen the headlines. Stories of students being bullied online are frighteningly common.

Abuse and mistreatment inside and outside of school harbor very real consequences for students and families. In April, the CDC reported that the national suicide rate had increased by 24 percent since 1999. These increases occurred in all age groups and among all genders.

But the largest increase among any one group was reported in girls ages 10 to 14.

Nobody wants to talk about suicide. It’s considered taboo in a lot of school communities. But like most tragedies, it’s not something that can be effectively whispered away.

School leaders and parents need to be acutely aware of this troubling and dangerous trend and what it means for their schools. At the very least, they need to consider what influences and safeguards can be put in place to help reverse it.

Recognizing the warning signs
The CDC cites several warning signs that may help parents, teachers, administrators, and other students recognize whether a friend or classmate might be suicidal.

They include:

  • History of previous suicide attempts
  • Family history of suicide
  • History of depression or other mental illness
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • An extremely stressful life event
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Exposure to other suicides or attempted suicides
  • Incarceration

But simply being able to spot the signs isn’t enough. For a lot of school communities, it comes down to how to create real awareness around the issue.

Being discreet and informative
As the CDC explains:

“Most people are uncomfortable with the topic of suicide. Too often, victims are blamed, and their families and friends are left stigmatized. As a result, people do not communicate openly about suicide. Thus an important public health problem is left shrouded in secrecy.”

That reality presents an obvious challenge for educators.

As difficult as it is to talk about, school leaders and counselors need to help students, staff, and parents understand suicide, why it occurs, and what warning signs to look out for. This may include forums or meetings to spur healthy conversations around the topic, improved professional development for staff to help them recognize the warning signs, or better counseling for students and their families.

Providing a safe, secure, and anonymous environment for students to be completely honest, whether it’s reporting what they see, or reaching out on behalf of a friend who they think might be in trouble, is absolutely critical. Anonymous phone or online hotlines are one way to encourage students to speak up without fear of embarrassment or recrimination.

There’s nothing easy about suicide prevention. We need to bring the issue out of the darkness, while educating our communities about the facts. We also have to provide discreet support, so that potential victims feel empowered to get the help they so desperately need.

Do you have a system to identify warning signs of depression or suicide in students? Tell us in the comments.

Want more ideas for how to prevent suicide and tragedy in your schools? Check back tomorrow as we explore the link between bullying and suicide.