We need to address the issue of suicide in schools and colleges

09 October 2019

Preventing suicidal thoughts needs a multi-faceted approach, including building resilience and ensuring early intervention and support, and it’s important that the whole school or college community nurtures an attitude about the subject of suicide.  We invited PAPYRUS, the UK charity for the prevention of young suicide, to share their thoughts about building positive, suicide-safer, school and college communities.

During Children’s Mental Health Week 2019, PAPYRUS teamed up with Radio City for a 4-hour live broadcast from St George’s Hall in Liverpool. The 226 shoes placed on the steps of St George’s Hall represented the number of school children who lost their lives in 2017.

Every year, over 200 school children die by suicide in the UK. While we hope that no community will lose a young person to suicide, the reality is that many students are struggling with suicidal thoughts, often without the support they need.

A 2017 survey, commissioned by PAPYUS, found that one in 10 (11%) of teachers said, on average, a student shares suicidal thoughts with them once a term or more. Yet the survey also identified a real need for support and training in the sector.

As part of their #SaveTheClass campaign PAPYRUS has developed a guide to suicide prevention, intervention and postvention in schools and colleges, aimed specifically at school and college staff. It aims to equip teachers with the skills and knowledge necessary to support students who may be having suicidal thoughts.

Useful advice for teachers

  • Identify your concerns. If you have concerns about a student, let them know.  Do they seem sad or not their usual self? What have you heard them say that makes you concerned? Is your instinct telling you that something is concerning?
  • Ask them directly: “are you thinking about suicide?” It is impossible to provide a definitive checklist of things to look out for to help you identify if someone is thinking about suicide because every young person is different. Rest assured you can’t make matters worse by asking the question.  You don’t need to interrogate them or try and ‘fix it’ for them; you just need to ask the question. 

The only way to check whether your intuition is correct is to ask the young person directly and clearly about suicide. By using the word suicide you are telling them that it’s OK to talk openly about their thoughts of suicide with you.

  • Don’t dismiss what they are saying. You might feel unprepared for the disclosure, but your calm and sensitive response will let them know that they can talk about suicide with you. You may need to refer to your suicide prevention policy or safeguarding team. If so, you need to tell the student that you have to share information with others. You may not have to share why they are having those thoughts.
  • Listen. Allow them to express their feelings. Reassure them that they are not alone and that you can look for help together.
  • Get Support and Advice: If you are concerned that a young person you know may be having thoughts of suicide, you can contact PAPYRUS HOPELINEUK for confidential advice and practical support, on 0800 068 4141.

The language we use to describe suicide needs to change.

Suicide hasn’t been a crime since 1961. Yet, using the phrase ‘committed suicide’ suggests it is still a crime, which perpetuates stigma and shuts people up – students will be less likely to talk about their thoughts of suicide if they feel judged. Using sensitive and appropriate language can help increase empathy and support.  For instance, instead of “committed suicide” use: "ended their life", "killed themselves", "took their own lives" or "died by suicide".

Papyrus is the UK charity dedicated to the prevention of young suicide.  Their vision is for a society which speaks openly about suicide and has the resources to help young people who may have suicidal thoughts.

Find out more in this guide that's been written specifically for schools and colleges.

Papyrus suicide prevention

Click here to download the guide.

Talking openly and directly about suicide is important. 

Questions you might ask a student you have concerns about:

  • “It sounds like life feels too hard for you right now and you want to kill yourself, is that right?”
  • “When you say you don’t want to be here anymore, do you mean that you want to be dead forever?”
  • “It sounds like you’re thinking about suicide, is that right?”

Unhelpful language when talking about attempted suicide:

  • Unsuccessful” or “failed” suicide
    Young people who attempt suicide may say “I couldn’t even do that right”.  They shouldn’t feel further burdened by the fact that their attempt was a ‘failure' as this may reinforce negative feelings.
  • “Attention seeking”
  • “It was just a cry for help”

Having suicidal thoughts is a serious matter.  Yet these sorts of phrases are dismissive and belittle someone’s need for help.  Children and young people who attempt suicide need attention, support, understanding and help.

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