A statement about thoughts of suicide, or even the suspicion that a student is contemplating suicide, requires your immediate attention and action. This information is provided to assist you in in the event that a student expresses suicidal thoughts or engages in conduct that may be dangerous to him or herself.
The following five steps are intended as a guide to determining a student’s risk of suicide. [adapted from “Providing First Aid for Individuals at Suicide Risk”, adapted from Kelly et al, BMC Psychiatry 2008; 8:17 doi:10.1186/1471-244X-8-17]
Step 1: Recognize and acknowledge the warning signs of suicide.
- Recognize the warning signs of suicide:
- Thoughts or urges to hurt or kill oneself
- Looking for ways to kill oneself: seeking access to pills, weapons, or other means
- Talking or writing about death, dying, or suicide
- Feeling a sense of hopelessness
- Exhibiting rage, anger, or the desire to seek revenge
- Acting recklessly, seemingly without thinking
- Feeling trapped, as if there is no way out
- Increasing alcohol or drug use
- Withdrawing from friends, family, or society
- Experiencing anxiety, agitation, inability to sleep, or a desire to sleep all the time
- Displaying dramatic changes in mood
- Expressing the loss of a reason for living, or a lack of purpose in life
- If you think someone might be having suicidal thoughts, ask about it directly.
Asking a student about suicide will not put the idea into his/her head.
- Address the issue without expressing dread or negative judgment. Your confidence may have a reassuring effect.
- Allow the student to discuss his/her feelings. A suicidal person may feel relief at being able to do so.
- Take all thoughts of or comments about suicide seriously.
Step 2: Depending on your level of comfort, either engage the student in an initial conversation or connect him/her with your school’s mental health professional
If you feel comfortable approaching the student, here are some guidelines to begin a conversation:
- Ask the student if he/she has a plan for suicide.
- If there is a plan, ask what it is.
- Ask if the student has already taken steps to carry out a plan to end his/her life.
- Ask the student if he/she has been using drugs or alcohol.
- Ask the student if he/she has ever made a suicide attempt.
- Take all thoughts of suicide seriously.
Step 3: Encourage the student to talk.
If you have contacted your school’s mental health professional, continue speaking with the student until he/she responds or arrives.
- Tell the student that you care and want to help.
- Encourage the student to do most of the talking, while you express empathy.
- Allow the student to talk about his/her reasons for wanting to die.
- Remind the student that these thoughts need not be acted upon.
- Find out who has supported the student in the past, and whether these supporters are still available.
Step 4: Provide assistance.
- If possible, do not leave the student alone. Follow your school district's suicide prevention procedures.
- Call 911 if the student has a suicide plan and plans on acting on it soon OR
if you think this may be the case.
- Refer the student to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 (800) 273-8255
- Keep in mind that you may not be successful in preventing suicide.
Step 5: Disregard confidentiality at times of suicide risk.
- Do NOT agree to keep the student’s suicidal plans a secret.
- Take care of any emergency immediately; if someone is suicidal,
confidentiality is no longer a consideration.
- Inform school administration when any student confides a suicide plan or attempt.
Step 6: Debrief and take care of yourself.
Intervening with a student who has suicidal thoughts or plans is stressful, but can be very rewarding when you realize you have potentially saved a life.
- Talk through your experience, including the warning signs that you recognized and your concerns. Discuss any lingering concerns about the situation. Affirm your courage and willingness to step into a difficult situation
- Make time for self-care activities