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Suicide Prevention: What Teachers Can Do

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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:

Transitions

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.”

Relationship Disruptions

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:

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:

  1. Engage the student in private conversation. Do this at the first sign that something is seriously wrong.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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.


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4 Comments

  1. David Carter says:

    I looking forward to receiving additional information.

  2. Kelly Maxwell says:

    I too lost my 23 year old son to suicide 3 years ago. I too am a teacher.

    I appreciate you sharing this message with teachers but just like your guest cautioned on using the term committed, I want to encourage you to remind teachers that there may be no signs or they may not see them and to NOT blame themselves for not doing more. Suicide is an insidious disease and guilt is often so damaging for those left behind.

    I just wanted you to know.

    I love your work.

    • Kelly. First of all I am so sorry you lost your son the same way i did. Three years it’s still pretty raw but for me that’s when a lot of healing happened.

      While 85% of those who die by suicide do let their intentions be known in some way, that leaves 15% that leave no clue. And of that 85% the clues can be very subtle and hard to distinguish from normal teen angst. Which is why a lot of our book focuses on building resilience, critical thinking skills, both active and less active mindfulness skills, connections and coping strategies. We want to prevent them from getting to crisis because it’s always easier to pull a kid out of choppy Waters than class five rapids. And teachers who had been through loss talk about what helped them and how difficult it was to process the loss and stand in front of a class of grieving students.
      And of course the empty desk syndrome and what to do about it is a theme.

      Thank you for your comment. I hope you will share with your colleagues.

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