How schools can take a lead in youth suicide prevention

Posted by on November 5, 2013

As increasing attention has – rightly – been paid to the issue of school-related bullying, growing attention, too, has come to the relationship between bullying and suicide.  We’re doing more to address bullying with our nation’s youth, but we’re not yet doing enough to address the problem of suicide, the third leading cause of death among adolescents. Research summarized by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) documents a strong association between bullying and suicide.

Why should schools accept any responsibility for suicide prevention? The reality is that every five hours a child or adolescent in the United States dies by suicide and this is an issue that must be addressed in the place that youth spend most of their time, at school.

A three-tiered model of prevention, intervention, and postvention is needed to decrease suicidal behavior among school-age youth. Suicide prevention starts with providing all staff with the skills necessary to identify and respond to individuals who are at-risk for suicidal behavior.  These include knowing the warning signs of suicide such as the following: talking and or writing about suicide and death, giving away prized possessions, exhibiting dramatic changes in behavior and the making out of a will.

Personnel such as school counselors, social workers and psychologists need to be trained to conduct thorough suicide assessments and procedures need to be developed that require parent notification when a student is believed to be suicidal. Schools have been successfully sued by parents in the aftermath of their child’s suicide when the school failed to provide appropriate supervision and to notify parents of the suicidal behavior. The only exception to parent notification is when the school believes that the parents are abusing the student and then the first call would be to protective services.

Middle and high schools are strongly encouraged to investigate the depression screening program of Signs of Suicide are listed as evidenced based by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC). It is also recommended that schools link with community resources for suicide prevention and provide educational forums that inform parents about the warning signs of suicide and sources of assistance in the community. A comprehensive suicide prevention program should also include postvention strategies, which include interventions that are conducted following a suicide that assist survivors with their shock, grief and confusion.

The SPRC in 2011 released the Suicide Postvention Toolkit for Schools that answers almost every question that school personnel might have about what to do or what not to do following a suicide. More information is available at

Youth suicide – which almost always involves untreated or undertreated mental illness – is preventable.  Our schools have an important opportunity for averting many of these tragic deaths. Let’s begin with schools accepting responsibility for prevention and developing a carefully planned program that utilizes best practices and community resources.

Youth suicide prevention is everyone’s responsibility!

Scott Poland

Consultant to National School Safety and Security Services

Scott Poland, Ed. D., is the Co-Director of the Suicide and Violence Prevention Office at NovaSoutheasternUniversity and a Past Prevention Division Director for the American Association of Suicidology. Further information is available at

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