3 Strategies for Developing a Suicide Awareness Program

This past week I spoke with a mother who had lost her son to a completed suicide the week before.  Her main reason for calling me was to share names of her son’s closest friends that attended his vigil and were noticeably and understandably shaken by this tragic event. The courage she showed to think of others in her time of grief touched my counselor heart.  She made a statement that stuck with me and is the driving force behind this blog. She said “I now understand the difference between suicide prevention and awareness. We have to focus on awareness because if we don’t know what to look for or where to seek help how can we ever prevent this?”

She went on to replay the days and months before her son made the very permanent decision to leave this world and was clearly distraught by the idea that she did not see the “signs”.  We ended the conversation by promising to continue to promote suicide awareness in sincere hopes that lives may be saved and paths may be changed in a more positive direction. 

There is not one specific action or answer that can be pinpointed in our quest to prevent the 2nd leading cause of death among children ages 15-19.  A more systemic, “it takes a village” mentality is our best line of defense against this epidemic that is tragically stealing our young people away from us at a staggering rate.  According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the results of the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System shows that every day in our nation, there are an average of 3,041 suicide attempts by young people in grades 9-12.  It also states that 4 out 5 teens that attempt suicide have shown clear warning signs. Take a look at this resource designed for parents, but can be helpful to educators as well. 

As counselors we are trained in areas of mental health issues, crisis response, and finding resources to assist in alternative coping strategies.  We have a duty to report when we feel that a student is being hurt, may hurt others, or may hurt themselves. It is our responsibility to share that knowledge with anyone who has contact with the students on our campus.  We must act to educate and promote suicide awareness with our staff, parents, students, and community. Here are three strategies to consider when developing a strong suicide awareness program on your campus:

#1 – Perception is Everything 

We must remember that an adolescent brain functions very differently than that of an average adult brain.  There is an excellent article on adolescent egocentrism and personal fables that serves as a reminder that although we may not see the daily “drama” as significant or worth taking time to discuss, in the minds of our teenagers it feels very real and extremely distressing. Ensure that this message is conveyed to teachers and parents so that they are reminded that we need to err on the side of caution and take our students seriously.

#2 – See Something, Say Something

It is a myth to say that if we talk about suicide it will put it in the minds of our students.  Our goal should be to remove that stigma and get the information out to the masses and then follow up with providing avenues for reporting. Educate your students through guidance lessons about how to notice warning signs in others and how to report their findings.  Emphasize this with staff members as well. The English teacher may read an essay that raises a red flag or the Algebra teacher may notice graphic drawings on the side of the homework turned in. A custodian may overhear a conversation in the hallway or a student might notice a comment on social media.  Point out the “better safe than sorry” mentality when it comes to reporting. 

#3 – “You can’t change the cards you’re dealt, just how you play your hand”

There are factors that lead to suicidal ideation, attempts, and completions that are not within our control. We can’t control a history of trauma, family dynamics, and underlying medical or mental health conditions.  Our focus should be on providing alternative coping strategies for students or staff members who find themselves in stressful situations with feelings of hopelessness and ideas that their only option is suicide. CLICK HERE for a free lesson plan on holding a “Resilience Fair” on campus. This idea was sparked by a brainstorming session during our campus Student Leadership Summit hosted by JC Pohl and TEEN TRUTH.  It can serve as an avenue to engage your whole school community in sharing alternative methods for coping with issues we all face in our daily lives. 

The statistics we are seeing in regards to teen suicide paint a disturbing picture and when we sit face to face with the families and friends who have been affected it can feel like we are fighting a losing battle.  Take time to grieve for those we have lost and then resolve to stand together to confront this by bringing it out into the light and creating a campus culture of awareness and open communication.  

“ Be kind- for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”  –Plato 

Penny Knight
School Counselor, TEEN TRUTH

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