Supporting Suicidal Students in School

Posted on September 11, 2018 by Helen Cutteridge

I’ve been doing youth work for 14 years, and it’s fair to say the days often blur into one, but every now and then there are days which stand our for good or bad reasons. 4 years ago, on a Friday in May was one of these days. 

A young person hadn’t turned up for their mentoring session, I had a brief email from their parent saying that they were unable to come and that they would talk to me later. I assumed it was a dentist appointment or something else mundane. It wasn’t, I knew the young person was struggling with their mental health and the medication that they were on could increase risky behaviour but I still wasn’t expecting the phone call. The young person had jumped from a car park roof, they had broken their back and were in intensive care. 

Over my years of supporting young people with their mental health I’ve learnt ways of asking difficult questions, spotting the signs of distress and helping the young people ask for help in healthy ways. 

1. “Have you ever thought about taking your own life.” This is one tough question to ask, but one that we shouldn’t be afraid to ask, it can save lives. I’ve worked with young people who have felt massive burdens lifted from their shoulders by someone simply listening to how they feel. If you’re scared of asking it, or even scared of the response, practice. Ask a friend/colleague to help, take it in turns asking and giving different answers. It might seem a bit silly but it’s easier to ask a question if you’ve asked it before. You should also ask if they have made any plans to hurt themselves, thinking about suicide and making plans to commit suicide are very different and shows intent.

2. Before you ask the question there are signs you can look out for, words and phrases which might indicate someone is thinking of taking their own life. Do they describe themselves as a burden or as worthless. Do they talk about how people would be better off without them, or are they unable to see a future for themselves. Low self-esteem is part of being a teenager, but this is about a real sense of not being good enough to even being alive, of feeling like friends and family would be happier without them. 

When we hear young people talk this way it’s about challenging them. This is a good time to ask that question, but also to work on building their esteem, helping them realise that the world is not a better place without them. That it get’s better, that life is worth fighting for. 

Once you know that a young person is struggling there are two things that you can, and should do, the first is to get support and the other is to work through with them an emergency plan incase they do harm themselves or feel like they are going to. 

3. Support, when a young person is struggling with their mental health the first thing is to get them to their GP, the doorway to medical support. Talk their parents/carers, easier said than done, but so important, this is not a burden to carry on your own, and those with parental responsibility have a right to know, they are also better able to keep an eye on their young person as they are around a lot longer. 

4. An action plan, there are some brilliant organisations out there that offer support 24/7, the Samaritans, the NSPCC, Childline to name a few, you can tweet them, text them, call them, and even use especially designed apps. Let your young person know that these are places they can go for help when it’s 2am and they need support. Encourage them to be honest with their parents when they feel this way. Finally know that A&E is an option, if a person is a risk to themselves (even if they have not yet hurt themselves) you can take them to a hospital and insist that they are seen by a mental health professional. You can also work on distractions techniques with them or other ways of expressing their emotions, art, music, baking, knitting. 

5. Look after yourself. Supporting vulnerable people is draining and to do it well you need support. You also need to know that it isn’t your responsibility and that it’s ok to need some space. 

I’ve had to learn how to do this well, and to learn what success looks like. Recently a young person that I have been supporting recognised that they weren’t safe and that they were going to do something drastic, instead of doing this they informed their parents, went to hospital and got the support they needed. This is a success, they were able to recognise the distress they were in and enact the plan we had made together. They are slowly seeing their worth and realising that they are valuable and that people want them in their lives. 

Some links that you might find helpful:

  • Wayne Dixon

    This is helpful to read AND certainly arrested my attention with some of what is currently going on. Thanks Helen.