Q and A With Student Suicide Prevention Expert

Recognizing the warning signs of suicide and intervening appropriately can help save student lives.

Q and A With Student Suicide Prevention Expert

If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Suicide Prevention Hotline at (800) 273- TALK (8255) or visit MoreThanSad.org.

But I think it just depends. The teacher, if she or he feels comfortable calling the parents, then that’s okay. Obviously, the counselor should know also. But the teacher may want to talk to the parents themselves. Then he and the parents might work out a plan. Either the counselor, the parent, or both, just as you said.

CS: With quite a few of the active shooting incidents that occur on K-12 campuses, the shooters not only target other people, but also take their own lives. How do teachers know the difference between a suicidal student who might become an active shooter and a kid who is just interested in taking his or her own life? Do they respond differently?

PC: It is true that in investigating what kinds of disorders affect kids who died by suicide, [the kids who have] a conduct disorder, which is sort of a prerequisite to being antisocial – some of them do kill themselves. So that really angry, difficult kid can also be potentially suicidal.

Teachers cannot make diagnoses. They’re not supposed to. I think they just have to be aware that bullying kids are vulnerable too, and teachers should refer them. They should feel comfortable talking to them about it and then referring them. So the key is their own comfort level.

CS: And as far as alcohol and substance abuse, they kind of go hand in hand with a lot of suicides. Any recommendations on prevention or intervention?

PC: Well, again, with teenagers you can’t do it without a parent. I think if [teachers or administrators] see teenage drinking on the campus, even off the campus, but they see it – if a kid comes to school with alcohol on their breath or if they have an automobile accident, the teacher should worry about alcohol as being involved. He or she should question the child about it. Again, they have to talk to the counselor or the parent.

Don’t Make Suicide Easy to Carry Out

Because firearms are often used by teens to commit suicide or in active shooter incidents, it is important for K-12 district personnel to tell parents to bar access to guns by their children, according to Dr. Paula Clayton, psychiatrist and the medical director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. This is especially true if a child or teen appears to be depressed.

“Whether because he’s a bully or because he’s depressed and
withdrawn, you really do have to be careful about barriers — about blocking ways to die by suicide,” she says. “Gun management in every home is a very important part of providing training for parents.”

The same applies to prescription medication found in medicine cabinets.

Warning Signs of Suicide

  • Observable signs of depression (unrelenting low mood, pessimism, hopelessness, desperation, anxiety, psychic pain and inter tension; withdrawal; sleep problems)
  • Increased alcohol and/or other drug use
  • Recent impulsiveness and taking unnecessary risks
  • Threatening suicide or expressing a strong wish to die
  • Making a plan (giving away prized possessions; sudden or impulsive purchase of a firearm; obtaining other means of killing oneself, such as poisons or medications)
  • Unexpected rage or anger

Source: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Responding to Teen Suicide Clusters

Lessons Learned Responding to a Suicide Cluster: Palo Alto School District (2010) recounts the events of what came to be known as a “suicide cluster” in the Palo Alto school district, in which five students took their own lives on a rail crossing over the course of late 2009 and early 2010. The report, which was published by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools and the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Technical Assistance Center, documents the Palo Alto school district’s response to this series of traumatic events. It also provides information to assist schools and communities on how to prepare for and prevent similar incidents.

1. Identify the victim’s connections and personal contacts to determine if they are at risk for experiencing grief-related issues. The Palo Alto district kept in touch with these at-risk individuals throughout the school year.

2. Implement an effective, comprehensive, community-based mental health plan for overall youth well-being.

3. Work with the media so they don’t sensationalize the suicides.

4. Create a database of individuals who might be at risk for committing suicide.

5. Develop a “Track Watch” group, where parents, other members of the community and paid guards would station themselves at the railroad tracks.

6. Develop a student peer group to remove some of the stigma associated with mental illness.


Helpful Resources

Suicide Hotline:
(800) 273- TALK (8255)


This article originally ran in 2011.

About the Author

Robin Hattersley Gray

Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach.

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