A coordinated approach
There’s considerable research suggesting that the most effective youth suicide prevention models begin with a whole-school approach to mental health and wellbeing. These whole-school approaches include promotion, prevention and early intervention for positive mental health.
Mental health promotion, prevention and early intervention
Having a whole-school approach, such as Be You, which focuses on promotion of positive mental health, prevention of poor mental health, and early intervention for students experiencing difficulties can make a significant contribution to the school’s suicide prevention efforts.
Any whole-school approach to mental health and wellbeing needs to include an understanding of:
- suicidal behaviour
- ways of preventing suicide
- the warning signs to look out for and how to approach and respond when concerned.
By understanding the risk factors, warning signs and typical triggers which may come together to create a situation which could lead to suicide, school staff can be alert and responsive at the earliest possible stage.
Having clear support pathways and connections to healthcare professionals can help greatly when students are seeking help. As a range of factors can impact on help-seeking behaviour, it’s also useful to seek out external agencies and supports that are respectful of diversity and can specifically target young people with particular needs. Where access to supports are limited, understanding the range of online and phone supports available can be useful.
Want to find out more about developing a whole-school approach?
Be You’s Mentally Healthy Communities domain looks at promoting a positive school culture that will encourage inclusion, respectful relationships and valuing diversity, which in turn may lead to and reduction in risk factors and increased protective factors in young people. Be You's Action Team Handbook also provides more detailed information about a whole-school approach.
How can resilience help?
A young person’s ability to manage change and deal with stressful circumstances is a protective factor against mental health issues and can decrease risk of suicide. Be You’s Learning Resilience domain focuses on how to intentionally teach social and emotional learning (SEL) skills and foster resilience in schools.
How can my school develop support pathways?
A whole-school community includes connection with community support services and health professionals. Be You’s Provide module can help you understand how your school can build external mental health connections.
Your role in suicide prevention
Because of your day-to-day contact with many young people, you may be the first to notice that a student could be feeling suicidal. For this reason, it’s important to be alert to warning signs and know what action you need to take within the boundaries of your role at the school.
Be aware of suicide warning signs
Young people thinking about suicide will often (but not always) give some clues or signs to those around them that show they’re troubled. These signs may be subtle or overt, so the more you know the student, and what’s typical behaviour for them, the easier it will be to notice a change in their behaviours.
Knowing the following warning signs of suicide may help you act quickly and confidently:
- Talking about or making plans for suicide
- Expressing hopelessness about the future
- Displaying severe or overwhelming emotional pain or distress.
Other worrisome behavioural clues or marked changes in behaviour to look out for include:
- withdrawal from or changes in social connections or situations
- changes in sleep (increased or decreased)
- anger or hostility that seems out of character or out of context
- recent increased agitation or irritability.
If you notice any of these signs, and you have a gut feeling of concern, then it’s important to act by following your school’s agreed policies and procedures.
Addressing high levels of concern
There are a number of key steps you can take to help ensure the safety of a student you think may be at immediate risk of suicide. These include:
- ensuring the student isn’t left alone but always has an adult with them
- advising students that the information about the risk must be shared with appropriate staff members and therefore can’t remain completely confidential
- seeking immediate support from appropriately trained staff or healthcare professionals.
Your school policies and procedures may outline specific steps for staff, depending on their role and level of training, in such situations.
Myth: asking a student you’re concerned for about suicide will lead to increased risk of suicide
While these conversations can be very difficult and confronting, there’s a lot you can and should do when you have concern for a student. By talking with the student (or finding someone who can) and getting further information, you can assist them to talk with others and get the professional support they may need. There’s no evidence that talking to a student directly about suicide is harmful.
Supporting the school’s prevention efforts
There are key things you can do to support your school’s suicide prevention efforts. These can be specifically targeted at suicide prevention or fall under broader health promotion strategies of the school.
- Be familiar with your school’s policies and procedures, and referral pathways for helping students at risk and in crisis.
- Implement programs and curricula to build the social and emotional wellbeing and resilience of students. Such programs can be aimed at reducing risk factors, such as bullying or marginalisation, and increasing protective factors, such as coping strategies and help-seeking.
- Develop and maintain positive relationships with students and families.
- Engage in staff professional learning and training programs about mental health and wellbeing and suicide prevention.
- Provide families with relevant information and connections to support (as appropriate).
Through your ongoing work in supporting the development of students’ social and emotional skills and resilience, you’re already doing a lot to foster the wellbeing of all students, including those most vulnerable.
You may be interested in accessing training to become a 'gatekeeper' at your school. Gatekeepers are individuals trained and resourced to recognise and respond to suicide risk in others. Families and educators have been recognised as the primary gatekeepers in youth suicide. It’s important to know who from your school has the training to respond to the concerns you have for a student.
Look after yourself
It’s important to acknowledge that recognising and supporting students at risk of suicide can be challenging. You may find it triggering in terms of your own feelings and emotions, or it may bring up issues relating to your family and friends. You may also feel anxious about your personal capacity to support students at risk of suicide and may feel like you’re not well-enough equipped.
- Adequate training, clear processes, referral pathways, a team approach and role clarity can all help.
- Staff wellbeing resources within Be You can be of assistance during these times.
- If you need to talk with someone, you could reach out to trusted colleagues, your school leaders or the schools employment assistance service to arrange a confidential discussion.
When should I be concerned?
Be You’s Notice module looks at factors you might consider when establishing whether you should be concerned about a student’s mental health.
The role of leadership teams in suicide prevention
School wellbeing and leadership staff have additional roles and responsibilities in relation to suicide prevention.
These roles and responsibilities need to be outlined in the school’s policies and procedures, and the staff appropriately trained to respond to concerns.
Responding to concerns
Where there’s a high concern of suicide, most school policies and procedures will direct an identified and trained staff member or professional to have a supportive conversation with a student. This conversation may include the following:
- Ask if they’re OK or if they’re having thoughts of suicide or plan to end their life.
- Express your concern about what you’re observing in their behaviour.
- Listen attentively and non-judgmentally.
- Reflect what they share and let them know they’ve been heard.
- Tell them they’re not alone.
- Let them know there are supports and treatments available that can help.
- If you or they are concerned, guide them to additional professional help.
- Follow the school’s referral pathway for support.
The identified staff also need to ensure the student has support from within and outside of the school environment. They’ll need to work closely with the young person in relation to the appropriate sharing of information with families. Engaging with them can be crucial to supporting young people and preventing the risk of suicide.
There may be times when a young person is estranged from their family, or there are circumstances within the family which place the young person at risk. In such cases, the student wellbeing and leadership teams will need to work closely with the young person to ensure there are adults who are able to support them.
Leading suicide prevention activities
Student wellbeing and leadership staff are in a position to lead, or assist others, to lead the suicide prevention efforts of the school. Key suicide prevention strategies, as part of the school’s whole-school approach to mental health, can include:
- ensuring all school staff are aware of, and confident with, the policies and procedures associated with recognising and responding appropriately to students at risk of suicide
- playing a key role in establishing safety plans and appropriate return-to-school plans for students who have attempted suicide, are at risk of suicide or bereaved by suicide
- ensuring all school staff are aware of, and confident with, the policies and procedures following a death by suicide
- providing support and opportunities for debriefing for all staff following an incident relating to suicide or a suicide attempt
- providing relevant professional development and training opportunities for school staff.
Suicide prevention programs attempt to mitigate risk factors and promote protective factors. Universal prevention programs target the whole population, while selective programs target high-risk groups, and indicated programs target individuals who have displayed significant risk.
In addition to school-based promotion, prevention and early intervention, the bigger picture of suicide prevention involves working in partnership with families, healthcare professionals and the broader community. This includes connections with, and promotion of, suicide assessment services, emergency care hotlines, emergency departments of hospitals, specialised care facilities, and so on.
As part of your school’s approach to mental health, it’s important to have identified healthcare professionals and trained staff members to be on hand to respond when there's a high level of concern for a student’s safety.
There’s key training available to assist with building staff and community capacity to undertake suicide prevention work, such as: Mental Health First Aid, Youth Mental Health First Aid and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health First Aid training; Applied Suicide Intervention Skills (ASIST), suicideTALK, and safeTALK training; and Gatekeeper Training.
Working with families and community
Families play a significant role in the lives of young people and can be a strong protective factor against suicide. When families have relevant information about the warning signs to look out for and where support is available, they may be better equipped to get help when they need it. For this reason, it can be useful for schools to consider approaches to sharing information with families. Seeking guidance and support from healthcare professionals, key community members and staff when planning this can assist with developing a sensitive and appropriate approach for your school context.
Information for families
Beyond Blue provides information about suicide and the risks facing young people, as well as information about communicating effectively and supporting young people to become more resilient. Read more at Healthy Families.
It’s important to note, at times, families can also present as risk factor for young people, so opportunities to support and strengthen families can contribute to the school’s suicide prevention efforts.
How do I talk with families about their young person?
Suicide is the leading cause of death among young people, but it's preventable, and identifying changes in your students is important.