With mental health support for children and young people perhaps more important now than ever, in light of the impact of COVID-19, Rachel Caldcleugh, a Suicide Prevention Adviser at PAPYRUS, shares 10 top tips to help all school staff navigate conversations around suicide, and better help pupils through challenging times.
I think we can all agree that this year has been a difficult one. We have all faced challenges caused by the pandemic, and most of us would hold our hands up and say that at points throughout the year our mental health has taken a hit due to COVID. As we approach the end of the year, take a moment of self-reflection, and consider how difficult this year has been for us at times. Can we then begin to even consider what this year has been like for our young people?
It is a fact that suicide is the biggest killer of young people under the age of 35 in the UK. Over 200 children (aged 10-19) are lost to suicide every single year. Suicide in young people is without a doubt a massive problem.
So why do we not talk about it? In short, because we are scared. Why are we scared? We are scared because we don’t like to talk about suicide, we don’t know how to approach these conversations and many are frightened that they may make things worse. We know from evidence and research that most teachers and staff within schools simply do not feel equipped to be able to have these types of conversations. However, school staff/teachers spend 30+ hours per week with young people, this would suggest that they might be best placed to have these conversations and offer this support.
Below, are 10 key suggestions that may help schools and staff to be more suicide focused and may allow staff to feel better equipped to have these types of difficult conversations:
- Spot the signs – signs of suicide can present themselves in many ways and may not always be obvious. For example, a person who is feeling suicidal may present as sad, angry, lonely. They may have begun to neglect themselves resulting in their appearance changing; they may no longer be sleeping well and may have a lack of appetite. You may notice things such as them giving away their possessions, acting impulsively, withdrawing socially, no longer interested in school work or self-harming. You can learn more about SPOT-ting the signs with PAPYRUS’ online tutorials.
- Go with your gut - there is no definitive way to spot if someone is suicidal. The above shows some of the potential signs/indicators however truth be told almost anything could be a potential indicator. This is where you own individual knowledge and previous experience with that young person will come in to play. Trust your instincts, you know this young person and if something doesn’t feel quite right to you then chances are it is not.
- Ask about suicide – the only way to know for sure if a young person is thinking about suicide is to ask. Be clear and direct, for example you may ask “are you thinking about suicide/are you thinking about taking your own life”. It is a common misconception that if a person is not thinking about suicide then by asking about it may put the idea in their head – this is not the case. In fact, asking directly about suicide lets that person know that it is okay to talk about, and to a degree normalises the word “suicide”. Having these types of conversations for the first time can be really difficult, considering looking up “conversation starters” under the Help & Advice section of the PAPYRUS website.
- Helpful vs unhelpful language – consider the language and wording you use when talking about suicide. For example, rather than asking “are you thinking about doing something silly?” – which could lead to an ambiguous answer and cause the young person to feel dismissed – instead ask “are you thinking about killing yourself?”. Avoid words such as “committing suicide/successful suicide”. The word committing is used most commonly when talking about if someone has committed an offence and so brings a negative connotation to the term. When we use the word successful, this is usually a way of describing when something positive has happened – when someone has taken their life this is not positive. It may be more useful and effective to use terms such as “ended their life/killed themselves/attempted suicide etc”.
- Ask about a plan – if a young person discloses that they are thinking about suicide, it is important to also ask if they have a plan. This is not so that you can remove all means to try reduce the risk (in fact this can have quite the opposite effect), but more so that you can work with that young person to try and empower them to keep themselves safe and to disable this plan of suicide. Take a look on the PAPYRUS website, where you will find examples and templates for “Suicide safety plans”.
- Consider school pressures/key events – when thinking about signs/symptoms in young people who may be experiencing thoughts of suicide, it is also important to consider other key events/pressures that may contribute. Such as GCSEs, exams, course work, prom, moving forms/classes, transitions etc. It has been a tough year for all but none more so than young people who have had to face significant time away from friends, a complete overhaul of their daily routine/normality, lack of structure, lack of social interactions, illness/death of loved ones, continuing academic pressure etc.
- HOPELINEUK – HOPELINEUK is PAPYRUS’s suicide prevention helpline. All calls/texts/email are answered by trained suicide prevention advisers. HOPELINEUK supports young people under the age of 35 who are experiencing thoughts of suicide AND they also support others who may be concerned about a young person experiencing thoughts of suicide. As well as supporting young people HOPELINEUK also offers support and guidance to people such as parents, professionals, siblings, friends, teachers, pastoral staff, relatives etc. who may be concerned about someone else. It is a confidential and anonymous service that is open 365 days per year 9am - midnight.
- School Policy – As a school you will already have in place a Safeguarding/Child Protection Policy, does this policy include a section on suicide prevention? It may be worth considering developing a separate policy or adding to an additional one, a section on suicide prevention/becoming suicide safer. This policy will help pupils, parents and staff alike to understand their responsibilities around suicide, and also will set out exactly what you as a school can do to support young people who are experiencing thoughts of suicide. For more information about implementing a suicide safer policy see “A guide for schools” on the PAPYRUS website.
- Be honest – To be able to effectively support young people you must be able to build a relationship, and the basis of any relationship is trust. You will have limitations around confidentiality and when you have to pass info on (as set by your school CP/Safeguarding Policy), be honest with the young person about this at the start of your conversation. This may feel like a barrier but it is there to protect you and also to protect the young person you are trying to support.
- Self-care – It may sound cheesy but remember that you cannot pour from an empty glass. Being a teacher/school staff is hard let’s face it. You have such an important role in helping develop young people into healthy, young adults. But it is hard to support young people around their mental health and emotional wellbeing if your own mental health is not in a good place. That being said it is important to practice self-care regularly. However, that may look to you, whether it be a long soak in the bath, going for a nice run, watching some trash telly, reading a book etc. just make sure you are doing it. Finally make sure we are practising what we preach and TALK. If you are struggling talk to someone; a colleague, a friend, a family member or even an adviser at HOPELINEUK, either way don’t struggle alone and allow someone else to help you manage that stress.
HOPELINEUK is a suicide prevention helpline, for young people under the age of 35. HOPELINEUK is a confidential and anonymous service. They are open 365 days per year, from 9am until midnight.
Tel: 0800 068 41 41 Text: 07860039967 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org