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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.
Remember: You are not expected to take the place of a mental health professional. If a student is at risk of suicide, your goal is to get him/her to a mental health provider, or someone trained in suicide intervention, as soon as possible.
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.
If you feel you need more training to prepare to face suicide risk, links to suicide training in your area can be found in the Resources section of this website.
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