Prevention of Youth Suicide


Youth suicide is an issue of increasing concern, internationally, nationally and locally.  It is an issue of particular concern to schools, who play a role both in the prevention and management of youth suicide. Prevention may include assistance, to students regarding conflict resolution, stress management and problem solving. Management refers to the school's response to crisis situations. It is important that schools have accurate information regarding youth suicide, and a well planned response to crisis management in the event of suicide. It is hoped the following information will assist school personnel in identifying students at risk, as well as intervening at times of crisis.


Although it is not possible to prevent all suicides, it is possible to recognise changes in individual behaviour and the existence of common risk factors which may, precipitate suicidal behaviour. Thus early identification of students at risk and early intervention may also be possible.


The Warning Signs -How to tell if a young person could be at risk of self-harm.


Suicide rarely occurs without warning. In 80% of suicides clear warning signs are present or individuals have communicated their thoughts and intentions to someone else prior to attempting suicide.   Some observable signs which may present at school or at home include:


•           Previous suicide attempt or some act of self harm.

•           Suicide threat or enquiries about lethality of drugs, weapons, gases.

•           Significant changes in eating or sleeping habits.

•           Dramatic change in school performance or behaviour at school.

•           Making final arrangements - making a will, giving away prized possessions, saying goodbye, making a definite suicide plan.

•           Recent suicide of a friend or relative.

•           Feelings of hopelessness or self-hatred.

•           Tendency to isolation.

•           Deep and prolonged depression - feeling sad and useless - "what's the point, you would be better off without me".

•           Loss of faith (in people or religion).

•           Not wanting to be touched by others.

•           Neglecting appearance or hygiene.

•           Writing or artwork indicating underlying distress.


Precipitants to Youth Suicide


There are a number of factors which could increase the risk of suicidal behaviour for some individuals. These factors may be related to episodic stressful events including:

•           incidents of loss, such as the death of a close friend or relative (especially by suicide), broken romance, changes in the family - separation, divorce, remarriage, or relocation causing loss of support networks.

•           or particular times of stress, such as custody disputes, anniversary of unhappy events (e.g. death of a friend), transition (e.g. from school to tertiary institution,       from one job to another or to no job).


Risk factors may also be related to chronic stressful life situations including, for example, family conflict, poor communication in the family, or living with parents who are alcoholic, abusive (physically, emotionally and sexually) or mentally ill. In addition, personal factors such as previous attempts, serious illness, substance abuse, loneliness, failure - at school, work or with friends, or low self-esteem, can place individuals at risk of self-harm.


What are the myths and the facts about suicide?


Many commonly held beliefs or "myths" exist relating to youth suicide. These can be misleading and can result in inappropriate action, delayed action or inaction. The following outlines some of these myths and the relevant facts which address them.


Myth    It's best not to talk about it - this will put ideas into their heads.

Fact    Asking will demonstrate your concerns and will provide the individual an opportunity to express his/her feelings. This will also give you an opportunity to assess the seriousness of intent.  E.g. "Have you thought about hurting yourself?”


Myth    They are just attention seeking.

Fact    Thoughts of suicide and attempts are cries for help which must be responded to.


Myth    They are mad/crazy/psychotic.

Fact    Some individuals have a treatable psychiatric condition but the majority of suicides relate to underlying social or personal factors.


Myth    Suicidal people are fully intent on dying.

Fact    Most suicidal people are undecided about living or dying and they `gamble with death “leaving it to others to save them. Almost no-one commits suicide without letting others know how he or she is feeling.


Myth    People who talk about killing themselves rarely complete suicide.

Fact    Most people who suicide give clues or warning signs of their intent, these may be verbal or non-verbal. Anyone who talks about suicide needs to be taken seriously.


Myth    Most adolescent suicides occur without previous recognisable warning.

Fact    Although the final act may seem sudden or spontaneous, in the vast majority of cases there is a long history of life problems, clear warning signs, threats or prior attempts.


Myth    Males and females are equally likely to complete suicide.

Fact    Adolescent males are significantly more likely to die by suicide than females, though the rate of attempted suicide is significantly higher for females t      han males.


What teachers can do when faced with a suicidal student?


'Be willing to listen. Reflect the thoughts and feelings of the student. "You seem to be feeling very upset / angry / hurt because ....... "  


Show interest, concern and willingness to help.


Don't judge the student's problems. While the break-up of a relationship, for example, may seem trivial compared with adult problems, it can be very significant to an adolescent.


Be prepared to ask a student if he or she is thinking of self-injury or suicide. "Have you thought about hurting yourself?”


Don't panic if the answer is "yes". Admitting it will be a big relief to the student.


Avoid debating suicide as an option, moralising or challenging the student. It is more useful to explore what has been said and to suggest any action is postponed until other options have been explored. Don't allow yourself to be sworn to secrecy.


Get help from a student services person e.g. school nurse, school psychologist, administration. If the student is in imminent danger, stay with him or her until help is obtained.


Where to seek help and further information in the Peel District


School Psychologist Service

School Nurse

Family and Children Services Your family Doctor

Your Priest or Minister

24 Hour Emergency Services


Samaritan      1800 198 313

            Crisis Care Unit        1800 199 008


Your local hospital


Adapted from an original concept by Suzanne Fabian and including it formation from the Youth Suicide Prevention Resource Package, published by the Health Department and Education Department of Western Australia.


Further information and assistance regarding youth suicide is available from the Peel District School Psychology Service.