By Susan Parmelee
Recently someone asked me, “If we discuss signs of suicide with youth, will that make them suicidal?” Research suggests that if you ask a teen about suicidal thoughts and plans they will answer honestly and accept referrals for treatment and support.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the second leading cause of death for 10- to 24-year-olds. And, since the 1950s, the rate of suicide in children and adolescents has increased by more than 300 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
School is an ideal place to discuss mental health issues, including stressors, anxiety, depression and suicide, because that is where young people spend the majority of their time. Programs like the Signs of Suicide curriculum—which the Capistrano Unified School District has adopted and is being used in San Clemente High School with our 10th-grade students—is demonstrating a significant reduction in reported suicide attempts when the program is used as directed, according to the 2004 March edition of American Journal of Public Health.
This evidence-based, best-practices curriculum teaches students the signs of mental health concerns and gives them the tools to seek help for themselves or for a friend. The 90-minute class presentation concludes with asking students to turn in a response form that allows them to confidentially request help from a trained professional either for themselves or a friend. Teachers and staff also receive an in-service training.
The SOS curriculum uses the acronym ACT, which stands for “Acknowledge, Care and Tell,” to help teens and adults identify the signs of suicide.
Acknowledge the signs of suicide:
- Feelings – strong anger, sadness, irritability, tearfulness
- Actions – risk-taking, withdrawal from activities, talking about suicide, using alcohol or drugs
- Changes – in eating, sleeping, loss of interest in friends and activities, a sudden increase in energy
- Threats – may convey a sense of hopelessness, giving up, things are not worth it, giving away meaningful items, internet searches for methods
- Situations – loss or death, break-up with a significant other, trouble with parents or the law, humiliations or failures, bullying
CARE about peers and family members: This part of the curriculum encourages youth to listen to their friends, acquaintances and family members and to take them seriously. Let friends know you can listen to them but also let your friend know they need to talk to an adult.
Tell a parent and a school professional about what your friend told you, immediately. Teens often confide in each other. It is extremely important that they understand to never promise to keep this secret. People kill themselves to escape the unbearable pain in their lives. By supporting them and getting them the resources they need, perhaps you can ease their pain.
Parents should also discuss mental health with their children. Please use this article to start a conversation. The topic is important to mature students ages 12 and older. If we make mental health part of family discussions, it becomes easier to talk about. In 2005, 16.9 percent of youth had seriously considered attempting suicide and approximately 8.4 percent had attempted suicide in the past 12 months, according to the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance. This means it is very likely that your teen is concerned about a friend or may even be experiencing signs of stress themselves and would like you to know.
If you have concerns, please call the high school counselor or the Wellness & Prevention Center social worker at 949.680.0516, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.8255, visit www.crisistextline.org or call 911 if anyone is in imminent danger. For more resources, visit The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide at www.sptsusa.org.
Susan Parmelee is a social worker who works during the week at San Clemente High School in the Wellness & Prevention Center and at Western Youth Services. To subscribe to Wellness and Prevention Center weekly emails, send an email with the word “subscribe” in the subject line to firstname.lastname@example.org.