Suicide Prevention: 9 Subtle Warning Signs for School Staff to Recognize

By Brandy Killian, M.S., NCSP, CAS

It is important to recognize the often subtle signs of suicide for suicide prevention to be effective.

Teachers and staff can play a crucial role in preventing suicide by becoming more familiar with the warning signs of suicide and learning what to do when they recognize them.

Students considering suicide are often not the ones teachers and administrators might expect.

A Personal Story About A Student Considering Suicide

I walk into the restroom to find a 9th grade student sitting on the floor and crying. I asked her what was wrong and she tells me that she “just can’t do it anymore.” I know this young girl. I am the school psychologist assigned to her school part time and we have spoken many times before. As I walk her to my office, she admits that she is having thoughts about killing herself.

Doesn’t matter what was on my agenda for the day. We will be spending the next few hours together and my only job is to keep her safe. I call her family and they rush to the school.

They can’t believe it and are certain she is saying this just for attention.

“It doesn’t matter,” I tell them gently. “We have to know she’s safe.”

She is taken to the hospital where she was admitted for several days. She is going to be OK and was able to get the help she so desperately needed.

Danger of Suicide is Rising

Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for our young people between the ages of 10 and 24 (CDC, 2016).

As a parent, as well as a professional in the schools, this is both shocking and terrifying.

Need to Raise Awareness of Warning Signs

As a school psychologist, part of my job is to help identify these at-risk youth and to connect them to needed services. However, identifying these young people is all of our responsibility. The school psychologist isn’t normally going to walk in on a student at their most vulnerable.

We work with students every day who are affected by mental health concerns in our schools. It is critical that all staff have the ability to recognize students who may be in crisis and in need of additional assistance.

Children Today Face a Host of New Stressors

Our children have the unfortunate reality of being exposed to numerous stressors, many of which we did not have when we were in school. Social media, an emphasis on standardized testing, and an abundance of realistic and violent video games, to name a few.

I see children under intense pressure.

They are under pressure to succeed.

They worry about their future.

They worry about fitting in socially.

Many of our students don’t have the necessary coping strategies to know how to handle these situations.

Lack of Mental Health Support Staff

In a perfect world we would have an abundance of mental health support staff, including school psychologists, in our schools who would be able to identify all of these children and teach them the skills they need to be successful.

The current recommended ratio of students per school psychologist is 700 to 1.

In 2010 it was 1,000 to 1.

In the real world, only 7 states met the recommended ratio of no more than 1,000 students per school psychologist in the 2009-2010 school year, and 23 states had 1,500 or more students per school psychologist in that year.

I am personally responsible for over 3,500 students between my two buildings this school year.

Clearly more often than not school psychologists have far more than the recommended amount of students allotted to them. This makes it increasingly important that staff that interact with the students on a day to day basis are aware of these subtle signs, as they are the first line of defense and the most likely to notice any behavioral changes in students.

All Staff Who Interact with Students Can Help Suicide Prevention

It is often our staff on the front lines who first recognize that a student may be in crisis. It may be the cafeteria monitor who notices that a usually social student is suddenly eating alone. The bus driver who overhears a concerning conversation. The classroom teacher who receives a poem by a student talking about their hopeless situation. It is critical that all of our staff members have the knowledge and the tools to not only notice these situations, but to know how to act.

Suicide Prevention: 9 Warning Signs

There can be overt signs of a potential suicide, such as when a student talks about wanting to die, threatens to kill or hurt themselves, or is seeking access to lethal means. However, there are often subtle signs as well and, sadly, sometimes none at all.

Warning signs a student may need immediate assistance include:

  1.  Expressing feelings of hopelessness. A student may share verbally, in their writing, in classwork, or through social media feelings of hopelessness. This may come across as “life is not worth living” or “why even bother with any of this.
  2. Isolating or withdrawing from others. The student may sit alone at lunch, not talk to anyone in class, perhaps hide at the back of the room, or shy away from others on the playground.
  3. Dramatic mood changes. The mood change can be a student who is all of a sudden very sad and depressed.
    • However, a student may also suddenly be extraordinarily happy. This can occur when a student has made a decision to harm themselves and feels relief over their decision.
  4. Giving away prized possessions. The giving away of prized items may be the student’s subtle way of saying goodbye.
  5. Sleeping all the time or too little. For example, the student who suddenly starts sleeping in class or complains to you about being able to sleep.
  6. Increased use of substances. However, any suspected use of substances in a student should be reported.
  7. Appears anxious or agitated. This type of behavior may be more pronounced than what is typical for the particular student.
  8. Rage, anger, or revenge seeking. You may see a student display this behavior for the first time or get into their first fight.
  9. Feeling trapped. The student may feel that there is no way out of a situation.

Staff Need to Know How to Take Action After Recognition

If the staff member feels that the student is in imminent danger, they should not leave the student alone, but call for help. Any other concerns should be reported right away. Do not wait until after school or at the very end of the day, if at all possible, to report your concerns.

Any staff member who is concerned for a student’s safety needs to know how they should communicate with the student and how to get them the immediate help they need.

Staff need to know, for example, that it’s okay to ask a student if they are thinking about killing themselves.

Staff need to know not leave a student alone who is at imminent risk.

Training provides the opportunity to learn the important skills, as well as practice in how staff can communicate with a student.

The Answer: Student Mental Health Training for Teachers and Staff

If you are an administrator, it is critical that you have your entire staff trained in recognizing students in need and how to handle the situation.

IBCCES has worked together with a team of experts in the field of mental health to put together actionable training with best practices of how to approach a variety of mental health conditions, including suicide. These mental health certifications are meant to help educators and other staff to both recognize the signs and know how to take action to get students the help they need, whether it be for suicide prevention, autism, dyslexia or some other mental health concern. This helps to give them the tools they need to both recognize and help students in need.

You may just save a life.

If you or someone you care about is in need of assistance please contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) for free and confidential emotional support.

You can also find out more about our programs that are specifically tailored to help prevent suicide and help teachers and other staff to recognize and get proper treatment for students with mental health challenges.

For more about suicide prevention here’s a good article from Help Guide.

By Brandy Killian
IBCCES Board Member; Licensed School Psychologist

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