Listen to the interview with Anne Moss Rogers (transcript):
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After Anne Moss Rogers lost her 20-year-old son to suicide, it took her a long time to understand why it happened. “My son suffered from depression and addiction,” she said in her 2018 Ted Talk, “but that doesn’t mean we were prepared. Suicide was not on my radar because no one was talking about it. And someone needed to.”
Since her son’s death, Rogers has devoted her time to learning everything she can about suicide and helping others understand what they can do to prevent it. Most recently, she has focused her work on teachers, whom she sees as a vital link between troubled students and the professionals who can help them cope with suicidal thoughts. In her new book, Emotionally Naked: A Teacher’s Guide to Preventing Suicide and Recognizing Students at Risk, she and co-author Kimberly O’Brien give teachers the information and tools they need to help reduce suicide in young people.
“(Teachers) see millions of adolescents nationwide,” Rogers explained in our podcast interview. “Their eyes, ears, gut feelings and all of that are a critical part of the workflow of demoting suicide as a cause of death in young people. Their relationships with students are a vital asset to that process. Think of teachers as a bridge from students who are struggling to the resources like the school counseling team, their parents and mental health resources.”
What follows is a summary of the key takeaways from our conversation: common misconceptions, contributing factors, signs and risk factors to look out for, and other things teachers can do to prevent youth suicide.
A note about language: Rogers makes a point to avoid the phrase “committed suicide” when talking about this issue. “It used to be a crime in 1400’s England,” she explains, “and it’s been part of our lexicon for hundreds of years. We know now that it’s a public health crisis, so (instead) we’d say died by suicide or she suicided. We want to avoid commit because it’s not a crime. It already has a lot of stigma and shame, and we can start to take away or erode that stigma and shame by using the right language.”
Common Misconceptions about Youth Suicide
Emotionally Naked reviews a long list of misconceptions about youth suicide; two of them are crucial for teachers to be aware of:
Misconception 1: Talking about suicide puts the idea in students’ heads.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Studies have shown that asking people about suicidal thoughts and behaviors does not cause or increase such thoughts. Asking someone directly, ‘Are you thinking of killing yourself?’ can be the best way to identify someone at risk for suicide.”
Misconception 2. Students contemplating suicide don’t want anyone to know.
“What I have found in my research is kids do want to tell,” Rogers says. “They’re not going to want to go to a therapist, and they’re going to want to talk to someone with whom they have a relationship. So few people tell a mental health professional. They tell us, so we need to know what to do, what to say and how to receive that information with empathy and kindness and know what to do in that next step.”
Factors that Contribute to Youth Suicide
Rogers says that students who die by suicide often start off in a vulnerable state. “By vulnerable,” she explains, “we mean one that’s exposed to violence or other trauma, lives with a mental illness such as bipolar or depression, has lost a family member and is grieving, or any of the ACEs—Adverse Childhood Experiences. So it is the constellation of those issues all together.”
What often happens next is a significant life change that can be the “last straw,” pushing the child toward suicidal thoughts. These changes—which should prompt teachers to pay closer attention—often fall into two categories:
Any major transition, such as moving from middle to high school, high school to college, or college to “real life” can be a trigger. Moving to a new school, new state, or new country can also put these students at risk.
“Also, those mini-transitions from school to Christmas break, from Christmas break back to school,” Rogers adds. “We find that a lot of kids die by suicide over the break for the summer. So those mini-transitions are key times as well.”
When the status of a relationship changes, this can also activate thoughts of suicide. “That’s romantic breakups, fights with siblings, parents, a best friend, a boyfriend, a parent divorce, being bullied, grief over a loss of a loved one,” Rogers explains.
COVID presents us with both of these: transitions into and out of at-home learning, for one, and the loss of loved ones due to the disease. On top of that, family job changes and other economic factors have placed extra stress on families. At this time in history, we have even more reasons to pay close attention to our students’ social and emotional well-being.
Suicide Signs and Risk Factors to Watch For
Some behaviors teachers can look out for include the following:
- frequent falling asleep in class
- sudden, significant drop in grades
- frequent visits to the school nurse or clinic for accidents, headaches, backaches, or sore muscles
- reckless behavior: an escalation in drinking, drug use, or self-harming behavior
- increased perfectionism or sensitivity to making mistakes
- cries for help: expressions like “I just want to die,” “I just can’t do this anymore,” or “I’m such a burden” in speech, writing, or artwork
Although some of these may just be temporary or simply a passing mood or phase, teachers are encouraged to take them seriously. “It’s not always what (students) say but how it makes you feel; you feel this sense of despair when they say something,” Rogers says. “And I want teachers, to act on that. You’re going to feel like, Oh my gosh, I’m not qualified, and it’s very uncomfortable. I want teachers to override that discomfort.”
How to Intervene: A Four-Step Process
Rogers strongly recommends that teachers get formal training in suicide prevention (a good place to start is LivingWorks Start, which takes just 90 minutes online). Until then, she suggests this four-step process for responding to a student who you suspect is having suicidal thoughts:
- Engage the student in private conversation. Do this at the first sign that something is seriously wrong.
- Listen with empathy, without trying to ‘fix’ the problem. “So you don’t want to say, You have so much to live for,” Rogers says. “You want to say, Tell me more. How long has this been going on?“
- Ask, “Are you thinking of suicide?” This is likely to be the most uncomfortable part of the conversations, but Rogers insists that it’s vital to ask this question directly.
- Connect the student with help. Rogers recommends going with the student to initiate a conversation with a school counselor. This transparency shows partnership between colleagues, alleviates fear of the unknown in the student, and gives the student agency in the process.
If you’re a new teacher and the first few steps seem like too much, Rogers advises that you simply go right to step 4 and connect the student with another adult, like a school counselor, who can help. But don’t wait—express your concern as soon as it arises.
How Educators Can Work Toward Prevention
Along with learning to recognize risk factors and warning signs, teachers can also incorporate practices that have a positive impact more “upstream,” before significant problems develop into crises.
- Embed Mental Health Education into the Curriculum
“It’s having those conversations and normalizing them within the school culture,” Rogers says. Embedding social-emotional education into daily classroom teaching, the way Wendy Turner recommended in a past post, teaches students that difficult emotions are a normal part of life, and it’s healthy to talk about them and ask for help when you need it.
- Nurture Student Relationships
“We know that kids that die by suicide often feel like they’re not connected or they don’t belong,” Rogers says. “So any kind of way you can get students to collaborate more and get to know each other better and create that sense of belonging and connectedness in your classroom, family, community, I think that is one of the biggest things you can interject in your classroom.”
- Teach Coping Skills
“Anytime you can integrate lessons that help kids with critical thinking and developing coping strategies and life skills,” Rogers says, “those are what are going to help them through those difficult times and those adverse circumstances. Once they practice them, they will remember them when they need to later on.”
- Systematize Faculty Collaboration
Teachers and other professionals need to set up a protocol for how to communicate when a troubled student has been identified. “Teachers need to know, I’ve identified this student. What happens next? Who do I go to? What does that process look like?” Thinking through these processes ahead of time ensures that students don’t slip through the cracks.
- Make Crisis Resources Visible
Printing and posting ads for Crisis Text Line gives students tools they can use to reach out for help.
Although the problem of youth suicide may seem overwhelming, Rogers’ message is ultimately one of hope. Teachers are just as likely, if not more likely, to notice small changes or cries for help than other adults, simply because of the amount of time spent with students. It’s crucial that we follow our instincts when we suspect something is wrong, because taking action can save lives.
“Intervention works,” Rogers says. “Listening works. And resilience and recovery are not only possible, they’re probable.”
If you have thoughts of suicide, please reach out to the Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.