NASP Communiqué, Vol. 35, #4
Tips for Parents
By Andrea Cohn, NCSP
Howard County (MD) Public Schools
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among youth between 10 and 19 years of age. However, suicide is
preventable. Youth who are contemplating suicide frequently give warning signs of their distress. Parents, teachers,
and friends are in a key position to pick up on these signs and get help. Most important is to never take these
warning signs lightly or promise to keep them secret. When all adults and students in the school community are
committed to making suicide prevention a priority — and are empowered to take the correct actions — we can
help youth before they engage in behavior with irreversible consequences.
Suicide Risk Factors
Certain characteristics are associated with increased suicide risk. These include:
- Mental illness including depression, conduct disorders, and substance abuse
- Family stress/dysfunction
- Environmental risks, including presence of a firearm in the home
- Situational crises (i.e., traumatic death of a loved one, physical or sexual abuse, family violence, etc.)
Suicide Warning Signs
Many suicidal youth demonstrate observable behaviors that signal their suicidal thinking. These include:
- Suicidal threats in the form of direct and indirect statements
- Suicide notes and plans
- Prior suicidal behavior
- Making final arrangements (e.g., making funeral arrangements, writing a will, giving away prized possessions)
- Preoccupation with death
- Changes in behavior, appearance, thoughts and/or feelings
What to Do
Youth who feel suicidal are not likely to seek help directly; however, parents, school personnel, and peers can
recognize the warning signs and take immediate action to keep the youth safe. When a youth gives signs that he
or she may be considering suicide, the following actions should be taken:
- Remain calm.
- Ask the youth directly if he or she is thinking about suicide.
- Focus on your concern for their wellbeing and avoid being accusatory.
- Reassure them that there is help and they will not feel like this forever.
- Do not judge.
- Provide constant supervision. Do not leave the youth alone.
- Remove means for self-harm.
- Get help: Peers should not agree to keep the suicidal thoughts a secret and instead should tell an adult, such
as a parent, teacher, or school psychologist. Parents should seek help from school or community mental health
resources as soon as possible. School staff should take the student to the designated school mental health
professional or administrator.
The Role of the School in Suicide Prevention
Children and adolescents spend a substantial part of their day in school under the supervision of school personnel.
Effective suicide and violence prevention is integrated with supportive mental health services, engages the
entire school community, and is embedded in a positive school climate through student behavioral expectations
and a trustful student/adult relationship. Therefore, it is crucial for all school staff to be familiar with and watchful for
risk factors and warning signs of suicidal behavior. The entire school staff should work to create an environment
where students feel safe sharing such information. School psychologists and other crisis team personnel, including
the school counselor and school administrator, are trained to intervene when a student is identified at risk for
suicide. These individuals conduct suicide risk assessment, warn/inform parents, provide recommendations and
referrals to community services, and often provide follow-up counseling and support at school.
Parent Notification and Participation
Parent notification is a vital part of suicide prevention. Parents need to be informed and actively involved in decisions
regarding their child’s welfare. Even if a child is judged to be at low risk for suicidal behavior, schools should
ask parents to sign a Notification of Emergency Conference form to indicate that relevant information has been
provided. These notifications must be documented. Additionally, parents are crucial members of a suicide risk
assessment as they often have information critical to making an appropriate assessment of risk, including mental
health history, family dynamics, recent traumatic events, and previous suicidal behaviors.
After a school notifies a parent of their child’s risk for suicide and provides referral information, the responsibility
falls upon the parent to seek mental health assistance for their child. Parents must:
- Continue to take threats seriously. Follow-through is important even after the child calms down or informs the
parent “they didn’t mean it.” Avoid assuming behavior is attention seeking.
- Access school supports. If parents are uncomfortable with following through on referrals, they can give the
school psychologist permission to contact the referral agency, provide referral information, and follow up on the
visit. The school can also assist in providing transportation to get the parent and child to the referral agency.
- Maintain communication with the school. After such an intervention, the school will also provide follow-up
supports. Parent communication will be crucial to ensuring that the school is the safest, most comfortable place
for their child.
The presence of resiliency factors can lessen the potential risks that lead to suicidal ideation and behaviors.
Once a child or adolescent is considered at risk, schools, families, and friends should work to build these protective
factors in and around the youth. These include:
- Family support and cohesion, including good communication
- Peer support and close social networks
- School and community connectedness
- Cultural or religious beliefs that discourage suicide and promote healthy living
- Adaptive coping and problem-solving skills, including conflict-resolution
- General life satisfaction, good self-esteem, sense of purpose
- Easy access to effective medical and mental health resources
NASP Resources Available Online
NASP has a number of resources available to assist families and educators in preventing youth suicide. These
can be accessed at www.nasponline.org. Additionally NASP has published numerous chapters that relate directly
to this topic. Information can be found on the NASP website.
Save a Friend: Tips for Teens to Prevent Suicide — http://www.nasponline.org/resources/crisis_safety/savefriend_
Times of Tragedy: Preventing Suicide in Troubled Children and Youth, Part I — http://www.nasponline.org/
National Association of Secondary School Principals, “Taking the Lead on Suicide Prevention and Intervention
in the Schools.” Available at www.nasponline.org/resources/principals/nassp2006.aspx. This will be a helpful
resource to share with your school administrators.
Other Online Resources
American Academy for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry — www.aacap.org
American Association of Suicidology — http://www.suicidology.org
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) — www.dbsalliance.org
Light for Life Program — http://www.yellowribbon.org/
National Institute of Mental Health Suicide Prevention Resources — http://www.nimh.nih.gov/suicideprevention/
National Mental Health Association — www.nmha.org
S.O.S High School Suicide Prevention Program — http://www.mentalhealthscreening.org/highschool/
Suicide Awareness/Voices of Education (SAVE) — www.save.org
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Strategy on Suicide Prevention — http://www.