Times of Tragedy: Preventing Suicide in Troubled Children and Youth,
Tips for Parents and Schools
National Association of School Psychologists
It has been well documented that children exposed to violence, life-threatening
events or traumatic losses are at greater risk for depression, alcohol
and substance abuse, and suicide. In the aftermath of tragedies such
as the September 11 terrorist attacks, a school shooting, natural disaster,
or even a personal crisis, students may display warning signs of suicidal
behavior. Parents and school personnel should be particularly observant
of children and youth who may be more vulnerable because of individual
circumstances. This includes youngsters who have experienced a personal
loss, abuse, or previous traumatic event or who suffer from depression
or other mental illness. Youngsters who have these risk factors and
who have been directly impacted by or witnessed another crisis are most
Although many suicidal children and adolescents do not self-refer,
they do show warning signs to their peers, parents or trusted school
personnel. Never ignore these signs. Suicide can be prevented with
proper intervention. Warning signs may not appear during the immediate
aftermath of a tragedy. Parents and school personnel must be good listeners
and observers over the weeks to follow. Below are some guidelines for
intervening with a suicidal student.
Warning Signs of Youth Suicide
- Suicide notes. These are a very real sign
of danger and should be taken seriously.
- Threats. Threats may be direct (I want
to die. I am going to kill myself) or, unfortunately,
indirect (The world would be better without me, Nobody
will miss me anyway). In adolescence, indirect clues could be
offered through joking or through references in school assignments,
particularly creative writing or art pieces. Young children and those
who view the world in more concrete terms may not be able to express
their feelings in words, but may provide indirect clues in the form
of acting-out, violent behavior, often accompanied by suicidal/homicidal
- Previous attempts. Often the best predictor of future
behavior is past behavior, which can indicate a coping style.
- Depression (helplessness/hopelessness). When symptoms
of depression include pervasive thoughts of helplessness and hopelessness,
a child or adolescent is conceivably at greater risk for suicide.
- Masked depression. Risk-taking behaviors can include
acts of aggression, gunplay, and alcohol/substance abuse.
- Final arrangements. This behavior may take many forms.
In adolescents, it might be giving away prized possessions such as
jewelry, clothing, journals or pictures.
- Efforts to hurt oneself. Self-mutilating
behaviors occur among children as young as elementary school-age.
Common self-destructive behaviors include running into traffic, jumping
from heights, and scratching/cutting/marking the body.
- Inability to concentrate or think rationally.
Such problems may be reflected in childrens classroom behavior,
homework habits, academic performance, household chores, even conversation.
- Changes in physical habits and appearance.
Changes include inability to sleep or sleeping all the time, sudden
weight gain or loss, disinterest in appearance, hygiene, etc.
- Sudden changes in personality, friends, behaviors.
Parents, teachers and peers are often the best observers of sudden
changes in suicidal students. Changes can include withdrawing from
normal relationships, increased absenteeism in school, loss of involvement
in regular interests or activities, and social withdrawal and isolation.
- Death and suicidal themes. These might appear in
classroom drawings, work samples, journals or homework.
- Plan/method/access. A suicidal child or adolescent
may show an increased focus on guns and other weapons, increased access
to guns, pills, etc., and/or may talk about or allude to a suicide
plan. The greater the planning, the greater the potential.
Tips for Parents
- Know the warning signs!
- Do not be afraid to talk to your child. Talking to
your children about suicide will not put thoughts into their head.
In fact, all available evidence indicates that talking to your child
lowers the risk of suicide. The message is, Suicide is not an
option, help is available."
- Suicide-proof your home. Make the knives, pills and,
above all, the firearms inaccessible.
- Utilize school and community resources. This can include
your school psychologist, crisis intervention personnel, suicide prevention
groups or hotlines, or private mental health professionals.
- Take immediate action. If your child indicates he/she
is contemplating suicide, or if your gut instinct tells you they might
hurt themselves, get help. Do not leave your child alone.
Even if he denies meaning it, stay with him. Reassure
him. Seek professional help. If necessary, drive your child to the
hospitals emergency room to ensure that she is in a safe environment
until a psychiatric evaluation can be completed.
- Listen to your childs friends. They may
give hints that they are worried about their friend but be uncomfortable
telling you directly. Be open. Ask questions.
Tips for Teachers
- Know the warning signs!
- Know the school's responsibilities. Schools have been
held liable in the courts for not warning the parents in a timely
fashion or adequately supervising the suicidal student.
- Encourage students to confide in you. Let students
know that you are there to help, that you care. Encourage them to
come to you if they or someone they know is considering suicide.
- Refer student immediately. Do not send
a student to the school psychologist or counselor. Escort the
child yourself to a member of the schools crisis team.
If a team has not been identified, notify the principal, psychologist,
counselor, nurse or social worker. (And as soon as possible, request
that your school organize a crisis team!)
- Join the crisis team. You have valuable information
to contribute so that the school crisis team can make an accurate
assessment of risk.
- Advocate for the child. Sometimes administrators may
minimize risk factors and warning signs in a particular student.
Advocate for the child until you are certain the child is safe.
Where to Get More Information
American Association of Suicidology (303) 692-0285
National Association of School Psychologists (301) 657-0270
Suicide Awareness/Voice of Education (SAVE)
School crisis teams can get more detailed information in Times
of Tragedy: Preventing Suicide in Troubled Children and Youth, Part
II: Tips for School Personnel or Crisis Team Members, at www.nasponline.org.
© 2001, National Association of School Psychologists, 4340 East
West Highway, Suite 402, Bethesda, MD 20814, (301) 657-0270, Fax (301)