Maintaining a safe school environment can have far reaching and long-lasting benefits for students of all ages.
Understanding how to recognize youth who may be at risk is a critical step in suicide prevention among school-aged children and adolescents.
Risk Factors and Warning Signs of Suicide in Youth
The factors that may put someone at risk and the signs that something may be wrong can vary by age. School-aged children (ages 6-12) and adolescents (ages 13-17) share some risk factors of suicidal behaviors, including:
- History of exposure to violence
- History of experiencing trauma
- Family history of suicide
- History of experiencing bullying
For struggling school-aged children, a tendency toward impulsivity increases the likelihood of tragic outcomes. For this reason, children with ADHD who are at risk should be watched especially carefully.
The single most common risk factor for suicidal behavior in children, says Dr. Rachel Delany, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Sheppard Pratt, is a particular series of events—a disciplinary action at school followed by an argument at home. Because of this, families should make an effort to respond to any school discipline calmly. A conversation about what happened and comforting words will go a long way toward keeping your student safe and teaching them healthy coping mechanisms.
Adolescents with a prior or existing diagnosis of depression or anxiety may be at higher risk for suicidal behavior. This also applies to those with any history of treatment for a mental health condition or a prior mental health hospitalization.
Adolescents who identify as part of minority communities and experience isolation or rejection as a result are often at high risk for suicidal behavior. This is sometimes true of adolescents in the LGBTQ population.
If a school-aged child in your life has become withdrawn from friends, family, hobbies, or activities they once enjoyed, take note. Other signs that something may be wrong include:
- Changes in grades
- Physical symptoms like changes in appetite, sleep behavior, headaches, or stomachaches
- Often, Dr. Delany says, younger children cannot verbalize precisely how they are feeling, but they can speak to the physical side effects of the stress they are experiencing.
Struggling adolescents may also withdraw from their social circles and activities, have trouble performing academically, or become irritable.
- They may also make vague or specific statements about their suicidal intentions.
- It is important to listen for these comments because they may indicate an adolescent is planning suicide.
- A change in mood can also be a red flag.
- Once the decision to act on suicidal thoughts has been made, an adolescent may appear to have a more positive mood, which could be mischaracterized as improvement.
How Can You Help?
Don’t be afraid to talk to the children and adolescents in your life about suicide. “Research shows that talking about suicide does not plant the idea in their heads,” says Dr. Delany. Instead, it sends the message that someone cares about them and their well-being.”
Every child needs to have at least one adult they trust and can talk to about any problems or difficult feelings they are experiencing. This could be a guidance counselor, sports coach, parent, pastor, teacher, etc. It is important to let the young people in your life know that you can be that trusted adult for them.
Limiting access to lethal means is the most important thing you can do to protect the young people in your life.
- Do not keep firearms in the home. If this is not possible, keep ammunition separate from weapons, and ensure both are locked up. For children and adolescents, the rates of death by suicide are over four times higher in households with firearms. Where there are more guns, there are more firearm suicides and firearm deaths.
- School-aged children most often complete suicide by hanging. If you believe your child is at risk, lock away long cords, electrical wiring, and ropes.
- Common household cleaning products can also become dangerous if misused and should be kept out of reach of at-risk young people.
- Knives and medications, particularly prescription medications, should also be kept safely away.
Communication and care are key to keeping kids safe. With your support, the young people in your life will feel better able to cope with the stresses and challenges they face and more comfortable asking for the help they need.
Suicide Prevention Resources:
If you or someone you love is having suicidal thoughts, help is available. Call the national suicide and crisis lifeline 988, or Sheppard Pratt at (410)-938-5000.