Preventing Youth Suicide
By Franklin Schargel
Although the national suicide rate declined in 2020, (NY Times, September 10, 2021,) the suicide rate for the nation’s youth increased dramatically. Youth suicide (ages 10-24) increased nearly 60 percent between 2007 and 2018. Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death for 10- to 24-year-olds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In June 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that teenage suicide had replaced homicide as the second leading cause of teenage death. Almost as many teens die from suicide as the fourth through the tenth leading causes of death combined. It’s also thought that at least 25 attempts are made for every completed teen suicide.
If you work in a school or district today, this is a situation that sadly, you may have to deal with. What has caused this dramatic increase? What role did bullying play? Why would children so young, with a full life ahead of them attempt suicide? And most importantly, what might your role be in preventing it?
FAST FACTS ABOUT YOUTH SUICIDE
• In the next 24 hours 1,439 teens will attempt suicide. As many as 250,000 adolescents made a serious unsuccessful effort to kill themselves last year.
• The fastest-growing group completing suicide is children between the ages of 10 and 14.
• Every 90 minutes a teenager or young adult is successful in killing him or herself.
• The suicide rate in the past 25 years has been decreasing, yet the rate for those between 15 and 24 has tripled. The adolescent suicide rate is nearly 33 percent higher than that of the overall population.
• According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, seventy-five percent of all suicides give some warning of their intentions to a friend or family member.
• Native American suicide rates for ages 15 to 24 are 3 times that of all Americans in that age group.
If you’ve ever been in a school where a student has attempted or been successful in committing suicide, you know how devastating are the effects it has on other students, parents, friends of the victim, and staff. Schools report that there are frequently “copycat” attempts after a reported successful attempt.
Suicide among young people is preventable—it just requires recognition and resources. Most schools have a written protocol for dealing with students who show signs of suicidal behavior. Unfortunately, many educators do not know the signs that indicate a potential suicide, nor have they been trained in how to address the problem.
Like many of the other social ills that schools are forced to deal with, suicide is something that schools must be proactive about.
RECOGNIZING RISK FACTORS FOR TEENAGE SUICIDE
There are five general risk factors to identify people who are at risk of attempting suicide.
1. Physical signs: fatigue, repeated health complaints, red and glazed eyes, and a lasting cough.
2. Emotional signs: personality change, sudden mood changes, irritability, irresponsible behavior, low self-esteem, poor judgment, depression, and a general lack of interest.
3. Family-influenced signs: starting arguments, breaking rules, or withdrawing from the family.
4. School signs: decreased interests, negative attitude, drop in grades, many absences, truancy, and discipline problems.
5. Social problems: new friends who are less interested in standard home and school activities, problems with the law, and changes to less conventional styles in dress and music.
People who are most at risk of attempting suicide are those who:
- have made previous attempts
- have a family history of suicide
- have had a recent stressful event or loss in their lives
- have easy access to lethal weapons, especially guns
- have suffered a divorce or separation in their families
- have a noticeable withdrawal from friends, family, and regular activities
- exhibit violent actions, rebellious behavior, or running away
- show an unusual neglect of personal appearance
- demonstrate marked personality change
- reveal persistent boredom, difficulty concentrating, or a decline in the quality of schoolwork
- show a loss of interest in pleasurable activities
- are not able to tolerate praise or rewards
- complain of being a bad person or feeling rotten inside
- give verbal hints with statements such as: “I won’t be a problem for you much longer, Nothing matters, It’s no use, and I won’t see you again”
While these are warning signs, they are not all the possible signs. Suffering from one of these symptoms does not necessarily mean that a person is suicidal. If a child or adolescent says, “I want to kill myself,” or “I’m going to commit suicide,” always take the statement seriously and immediately seek assistance from a qualified mental health professional.
Make it clear that you care; stress your willingness to listen. An estimated 80 percent of all those who commit suicide give some warning of their intentions or mention their feelings to a friend or family member. Not all suicide attempts lead to successful suicides.
(Source: National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center and American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, www.acap.org)
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF DEPRESSION?
- Feeling sad, empty tired or numb
- Feeling tired all the time
- Feeling hopeless, helpless or worthless
- Feeling angry or moody, excessive crying
- Sleeping more than usual
- Avoiding friends, feeling alone when with friends
- Loss of interest in things that used to be fun.
- Abrupt change in behavior, such as mood swings, crying spells
- Changes in school performance
In dealing with depression, research indicates that depressed students need to share thoughts with people they trust and respect including counselors, teachers and friends. Schools might consider the establishment of a peer-helper system. It is important for these individuals to be trained in listening skills, and various responses on what to do in problematic situations.
WHAT CAN EDUCATORS DO TO PREVENT YOUTH SUICIDE?
• While no one single symptom—or even a combination of factors—is a predictor of suicide; if they suspect that a student is suicidal, teachers and students should tell a counselor or an administrator.
• Always take suicidal comments very seriously. If a student says that he or she is thinking about suicide, you need to take him or her seriously. If you assume that the person is only seeking attention, you may be making a serious and potentially fatal decision.
• Listen attentively to everything that a potential suicidal person has to say. Encourage the person talk as much as he or she wants to. Listen closely so that you can be as supportive as possible, and learn as much as possible about what is the cause of the pain.
• Don’t lecture or point out all the reasons a person has to live. Instead, listen and reassure the individual that depression and suicidal tendencies can be treated.
• If you suspect that the individual is at high risk of suicide, do not leave the person alone. If you are in doubt, call 911.
• Know your limits. Most of us have not been trained how to handle situations like this. Be supportive; listen attentively; let the person know that you are deeply concerned.
About the author
Franklin P. Schargel is a former classroom teacher, school counselor and school administrator who successfully designed, developed and helped implement a process that dramatically increased parental engagement, increased post-secondary school attendance and significantly lowered his Title 1 high school’s dropout rate. The U.S. Department of Education, Business Week, Fortune Magazine, National Public Radio (NPR) the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and The New York Times have recognized his work. In addition, Schargel served as the Education Division Chair of the American Society for Quality and helped develop the National Quality Award, the Malcolm Baldridge Award for Education.
Portions of this article were excerpted from the above title.
This article was originally published by The Learning Counsel, a research institute and news media hub focused on providing context for the shift in education to digital curriculum.