General Information

As children move into their teen years, they are faced with challenges that can feel insurmountable. When they face other difficulties at the same time—divorce, abuse (physical or sexual), emotional neglect, exposure to domestic violence, alcoholism, substance abuse, BULLYING, or mental health problems such as anxiety or depression—they can feel overwhelmed.

Compound these challenges with a sense of isolation from peers, family, and the broader community, and with access to a means to end their lives, and it is not surprising that for some of these children, the permanent solution of suicide may seem to be an answer to their problems— problems that they do not realize are, more often than not, temporary.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers and young adults, following motor vehicle accidents. Girls generally attempt suicide more often than boys, but boys are about four times more likely to die from a suicide attempt. The same emotional states that make adults vulnerable to considering suicide also apply to youth.

General Characteristics To Look For

Many suicidal teens may appear depressed or downcast, with low self-esteem and a habit of self-deprecation. Some students may hide their problems underneath a disguise of excess energy. For others, there is a sudden, uncharacteristic agitation and hyperactivity. This restlessness may take the form of confrontational or aggressive behaviour. Other signs include

  • neglect of personal appearance
  • sadness and hopelessness
  • changes in eating patterns, resulting in sudden weight loss or gain
  • general lethargy, lack of energy, or excess energy
  • suddenly becoming cheerful after a period of depression
  • verbal hints such as “I won’t be a problem for you much longer”, “Nothing matters”, “It’s no use”, “I won’t see you again”.
  • Putting his/her affairs in order—for example, giving away favourite possessions or returning text books and other borrowed items
  • frequent complaints about physical symptoms that are often related to emotions, such as stomach aches, headaches, fatigue, etc.
  • obvious changes in personality
  • withdrawal from family and peers
  • loss of interest in previously pleasurable activity
  • signs of psychosis (hallucinations or bizarre thoughts)
  • rejecting praise or rewards, insisting on their own lack of worth
  • persistent boredom, difficulty concentrating, or a decline in the quality of school work

Teens who talk or write about suicide should be taken seriously. They should not be dismissed or ignored on the assumption that their feelings are a passing phase.

Important Note

  • ASK. Use direct questions. Somebody who hasn’t considered ending his/her life isn’t going to adopt the idea simply because the possibility has been raised. Asking will show these children that their distress has been noticed and that someone cares about them.
  • LISTEN. Let children know that others care and can help. Reassure them that the pain they suffer can be alleviated.
  • Build connections between children and those who can help.
  • FOLLOW APPLICABLE PROTOCOLS…because the cry for help must be acted upon immediately.
  • FOLLOW APPLICABLE PROTOCOLS…because the cry for help must be acted upon immediately.
  • Ensure resources and protocols are familiar to the school team and facilitate their use when needed.
  • Do not exclude suicidal students from school life. Build a plan with parents and mental health professionals that can support and respond to their needs within school as much as possible.
  • Provide professional development opportunities for staff.
  • If concerns are raised about a child’s safety, respond quickly. Seek and follow the advice received through professional consultation.
  • Keep the school informed if there are reasons why a child’s suicide risk might be higher at a given time.
  • Help develop effective protocols for responding to high-risk students.
  • Support schools and parents/caregivers in monitoring children’s safety and responding to risk factors.
  • Assess and help build a response to immediate risk factors.
  • Facilitate evaluation of clinical depression or other needed assessments.
  • Help teens develop effective mechanisms for coping with problems.
  • Provide counseling to deal with pressures or problems.
  • Increase communication to clarify roles, responsibilities, and limitations of each service’s mandate and resources.
  • Engage in ongoing joint training initiatives.
  • Focus on “UPSTREAM” prevention initiatives.
  • Help build a team approach between home, counseling services, and the school so that the expectations for students are consistent across environments and the particular challenges of school environments are respected.